Synergy Charter Academy will get a school to match its students

For years, Synergy Charter Academy couldn’t get the time of day from the Los Angeles Unified School District, at least not when it came to its most urgent need.

Synergy, which rented space from a church in a battered neighborhood in Historic South-Central, needed a new campus -- badly. The L.A. Unified School District was building a stunning new elementary school just a block away. State law says charter schools are entitled to a share of district facilities.

But every time Synergy founders Randy and Meg Palisoc asked if they could have at least a portion of the new facility, they were told, “Check back with us next year.”

Last year, they finally got the answer they were waiting for. In the fall, Synergy will move into spacious, modern classrooms, which it will share with a traditional public school.

Synergy’s struggles reflect a common theme among California charter schools: Real estate is the single biggest hurdle that many face, and they have complained that school districts have honored their obligations only grudgingly, if at all. But the experiences of Synergy and a few other schools suggest that may be changing in L.A. Unified.

The Palisocs, former L.A. Unified teachers who had ideas they wanted to try in a school of their own, are not among the charter advocates who disdain the district. All they’ve wanted, they say, is a chance to create a model that would work and that other schools could follow.

For them and their staff, the new school is a godsend. For six years, Synergy has rented space from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, near the intersection of Central Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard. Not only is the building cramped and outdated -- one room does multiple duty as a library, computer lab, teachers’ lounge and main office -- but Synergy teachers have to pack up their classrooms every Friday to make room for the church’s Sunday school.

“We have teachers who, if we were going to be here another year, they wouldn’t make it,” said Principal Jennifer Epps. “You can only sustain this for so long.”

Synergy, she said, has demonstrated that the physical setting “doesn’t make or break the child.” But it can break the staff.

All this might not matter so much if Synergy were just another low-performing inner-city school. But it’s far from that.

Drawing students mostly from impoverished, immigrant families in the neighborhood, Synergy has achieved results that would be the envy of schools in far more affluent communities. The school sets high standards, keeps class sizes relatively small, uses data relentlessly to spot children’s strengths and weaknesses and intervenes quickly when they slip below their potential.

The result: standardized test scores that are among the highest in the city, far above those in surrounding schools. There is little evidence that Synergy achieves this by handpicking star students. Many parents say they enrolled their children at Synergy specifically because they were failing at a nearby school. (Like many charters, however, Synergy has a lower percentage of special education students than the average Los Angeles public school.)

The children “feel very proud of their success,” said Mercedes Barocio, the mother of a fourth grader. “So at an early age, they’re aware that they can do anything they want.”