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California

Families are choosing this L.A. school over privates and charters

Porter Ranch Community School

President of the leadership class Caitlyn Cho appoints other students to tasks at Porter Ranch Community School.

(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Ashlee Rose wanted the best when her daughter was ready to start kindergarten three years ago. So she chose a private school over her local Los Angeles Unified School District school — Chatsworth Park Elementary, where test scores and parent involvement did not meet her standards, she said.

When Rose and her family moved to the northern San Fernando Valley community of Porter Ranch this year, it was time for another decision. After extended research into area schools, Rose made the leap to Porter Ranch Community School, an L.A. Unified campus. She is one of hundreds of families who have chosen the public school over several nearby charter and private campuses.

“This school is amazing,” Rose said. “It’s a public school with a private school feel.”

As L.A. Unified’s enrollment shrinks, with tens of thousands of students fleeing to charter and private schools and to other areas, Porter Ranch reflects a reverse trend. The campus opened three years ago and already has outgrown its space. An additional double bungalow with four classrooms was quickly filled, prompting plans for another two-classroom bungalow and a 10-classroom middle school building.

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About a third of the campus’ 1,100 students in kindergarten through eighth grade have come from nearby charter and private schools – a development that caught officials off-guard. “We didn’t anticipate that; these students were off the grid,” said Principal Mary Melvin.

The growth, which is expected to rise to 1,350 students by 2018, is driven in part by booming housing developments in the high-income, low-crime area. The school’s students do not reflect the district’s average demographics; they are primarily white and Asian American, from only 4% low-income families and parents who can afford to raise $150,000 a year for the school.

The 10-acre campus features a gleaming gym, science and computer labs, a library and performing arts spaces. Parents also say they chose the school because of the dynamic principal, dedicated teachers, close community and what they find to be a rich and engaging educational program.

The school offers a Korean-English dual language program, along with third-grade Spanish and after-school Korean and Mandarin Chinese. The Korean program drew Alice Lee and her family from Castlebay Lane Charter Elementary.

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Lee, a second-generation Korean American, said her third-grader has already surpassed her own Korean language abilities and learned about cultural holidays she and her husband no longer celebrate at home, such as Korean New Year and Thanksgiving. The Republic of Korea Consulate General supports the program with materials and helps fund a tae kwon do program and Korean drumming class.

She and others said Melvin’s leadership has been key to the school’s success. Melvin held multiple community meetings before the campus opened to lay out her vision of cutting-edge, global education. But she also solicited parent ideas, which helped set the school’s focus on science, writing and leadership.

Two years ago, Melvin led efforts to transform Porter Ranch into a so-called pilot school, which allows greater freedom for teachers to shape their own curriculum and calendar rather than be tied to district mandates.

She was able to handpick her staff and drew top teaching talent: 14 of her 49 teachers have achieved national board certification, the profession’s mark of accomplished teaching.

Kip Kaprelian is one of those teachers. She recently led her second-graders through a close read of “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” pushing them to consider whether it was “weird” to advertise for a bride and teaching them figurative versus literal language.

She said Melvin encouraged her to pursue her interest in a math method used in Singapore and other Asian countries that focuses on deeply understanding math concepts. She and other teachers tried it last year with first-graders; it was so successful the whole school is moving to use it rather than the district’s math program.

“The way the district looks at reform is control,” Kaprelian said. “I love this school because rather than tying my hands, it gives me the freedom to do what I feel is best for the children.”

The school also chose its own writing program after 2013 data showed that Porter Ranch fourth-grade students scored considerably lower than peers at Castlebay charter. Melvin said writing scores have improved by 15% since then.

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The school launched a citizenship program after finding that 42% of their middle school students had received unsatisfactory marks for work habits and cooperation. Melvin said behavior has improved since then, with no student suspensions last year.

Further evidence that the school is on track came last month, when results from new statewide tests showed that Porter Ranch students outperformed Castlebay and surrounding schools with 71% at grade level in math and 75% in English. That was well above L.A. Unified’s average of 33% in math and 25% in English.

In the seventh- and eighth-grade leadership class, several students who came from other schools particularly praised the teachers, saying their clear instruction and willingness to work with them during lunch and after school had helped boost their performance.

The pilot plan faced a major challenge when the expected budget of $200,000 was abruptly slashed to $27,000 under a new state funding system that redirected school dollars to students who are low-income, learning English or in foster care. But parents have rallied in response, raising about $150,000 a year to pay for extra teacher aides, nurses, librarians, counselors, staff training, laptop computers, computer and science lab assistants.

Rand Darghali said such parent involvement was a major reason she decided to move her three children from a private school to Porter Ranch this year. She wishes the classes were smaller — there are 36 students in her fifth-grader’s class compared with 18 at the private school. But Darghali has no regrets — especially now that she’s saving $2,000 a month in private school tuition.

Rose said L.A. Unified could attract more families back to public schools by following Porter Ranch’s playbook: high expectations, opportunities for involvement and close communication among administrators, teachers and parents.

“They’re not looking at average; they’re looking at exceeding expectations to give our children the best education they deserve,” she said.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe


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