As schools across California bemoan increasing class sizes, the Alliance Technology and Math Science High School has boosted class size — on purpose — to an astonishing 48. The students work at computers most of the school day.
Next door in an identical building containing a different school, digital imaging — in the form of animation, short films and graphics — is used for class projects in English, math and science.
At a third school on the same Glassell Park campus, long known as Taylor Yards, high-schoolers get hands-on experience with a working solar panel.
These schools and two others coexist at the Sotomayor Learning Academies, which opened this fall under a Los Angeles school district policy called Public School Choice. The 2009 initiative, the first of its kind in the nation, has allowed groups from inside and outside the Los Angeles Unified School District to compete for the right to run dozens of new or low-performing schools.
For two years, the school board has selected the winners after painstaking reviews and intense politicking. The process has led to acrimony, litigation and layoffs, but at Sotomayor, there’s been an almost startling degree of cooperation.
The competition for schools could end immediately, however, if teachers approve a tentative three-year pact with L.A. Unified this week. The district would no longer hand over campuses to outside nonprofits, including charter schools.
That would be a step backward, said former school board member Yolie Flores, who wrote the Public School Choice policy two years ago.
“What we created, by way of a competition, helped people behave differently,” said Flores, who now heads an education advocacy group. The policy created “a sense of urgency” that compelled schools to change for the better, she said.
At Sotomayor, two of the five schools are run by charters, which are independently managed and exempt from some rules that govern traditional schools. Most charters are nonunion.
In the Alliance charter, first-year Spanish teacher Perrin Legg manages 48 students per class in groups of 16: one works with her, others collaborate on projects, while the remaining students work individually at computers.
Damon Siah, a ninth-grader, said he likes the format because he can work ahead in math, his favorite subject, something he couldn’t do at his traditional school.
Freshman Juan Ortiz said his math grades have surged through his use of computer programs that isolate the areas he needs to work on. He said he’s now tutoring other students.
The school using digital art on the Sotomayor campus, called ArtLAB, also includes special education students in rigorous academic courses and adds another teacher to such classes.
ArtLAB is one of the three Sotomayor schools founded by teams of L.A. Unified teachers. These schools are directly overseen by L.A. Unified and abide by district union contracts.
At another of the three on that campus, the L.A. River School, instructors are teaching students to use solar cells, a soil lab and a water lab, which are outfitted with industrial equipment. So far, this school has attracted more students than the others at Sotomayor. The River School groups its classes by interest and aptitude rather than by grade level.
The third non-charter there is the School of History and Dramatic Arts. The other charter, Early College Academy for Leaders and Scholars, is managed by Partnerships to Uplift Communities, which has 13 schools.
Competing while having to share a campus “has demanded that all of us be on our ‘A game,’” said Paul Payne, a math teacher who helped start the River School. “We have five really amazing schools on this campus.” The schools work together to divide cafeteria hours and organize campuswide sports teams and clubs.
From the start, however, Public School Choice has been criticized.
School board member Steve Zimmer said charter operators campaigned almost exclusively for the new campuses rather than trying to take on existing schools, which he regards as the heart of the mission.
Teachers complained that plan development was onerous on top of their regular duties.
Charter bids frequently attracted fierce opposition. At Clay Middle School in the Athens neighborhood of unincorporated South Los Angeles, for example, local district officials — including school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte — insisted that the school was making progress.
Alliance College-Ready Public Schools dropped plans to compete for Clay. “This work is hard enough when people want to work together,” said Judy Burton, chief executive of Alliance, which runs 20 schools, including one school at Sotomayor.
Another charter organization, Green Dot Public Schools, pressed on, however, and ultimately won control of Clay through its lobbying and track record. The teachers union has sued to reverse the takeover.
Political pull worked in various ways. The district initially set up nonbinding elections by which parents and others could vote on competing plans. Grass-roots organizing by the teachers union helped teacher groups dominate these elections. Union opponents, with the support of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, subsequently used their clout to end this voting.
The first year, pressure from unions and others prevailed to win additional campuses for plans led by district teachers. The second year, charter school advocates turned the tables.
Last year, five charters opened in new campuses. This fall, six opened in new schools and two opened at Clay. Other nonprofits have claimed four schools. The new charters this year eliminated about 150 jobs formerly held by district teachers.
It’s difficult to assess the effects of Public School Choice on student achievement after only one full academic year.
Some defenders of the effort say L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy tossed aside a promising program and gained nothing meaningful.
The superintendent “gave away a crown jewel of education reform that put L.A. on the national map,” said former state Sen. Gloria Romero.
But Deasy said the agreement with the teachers union could give all district schools the advantages of charters. Any school could opt out of provisions of the union contract as well as district policy, gaining new freedoms.
The principal of one of the Sotomayor charter schools said Deasy’s deal could be good for students overall.
“I love the idea that the district schools are receiving more autonomy,” said Mara Simmons, a former L.A. Unified teacher who heads the Partnerships to Uplift Communities charter. “That was one of our original wishes and intentions when we put in a bid for this school.”