Incubator School in L.A. sparks discord over location, teachers

Sujata Bhatt uses online games to encourage her students at Grand View Boulevard Elementary School to aim higher: “Don’t just play games, make them.”

Now Bhatt will get the chance to teach middle school students how to launch their own businesses at a new campus approved this week by the Los Angeles school board. The Incubator School marks the latest effort in L.A. Unified to spark innovation through “pilot” schools, where district educators are given autonomy over their curriculum, budget, staffing, training and other elements.

Despite enthusiasm for the school’s concept, however, the plan became entangled in disputes over its location, union concerns over job placement rules and political tensions.

The board backed off from locating the new campus at Venice High School after parents and students complained they were not informed about it until last week. Sara Roos, a Venice High parent, told the board she wanted more details about the plan, although she sharply criticized it in online comments as an “experiment indoctrinating children in the tricks of an unregulated, free capitalistic market.”

Lisa Sobajian, 10th-grade class president, submitted a petition signed by 1,000 students opposed to sharing their campus with the new school.

Bhatt said that she met with Venice High’s principal and teachers union representative last October, but that requests to present the idea to the faculty drew no response. District officials acknowledged their communication efforts fell short.


In any case, under an amendment by board member Steve Zimmer, the board approved the school but directed the district and Venice community to work together to seek a location.

That did not disappoint Bhatt, who said she felt “relief and joy” over the board’s approval.

“I want students to be excited about learning,” Bhatt said. “It’s about creating quality schools for kids.”

United Teachers Los Angeles, however, has not weighed in on the new school. The union has looked carefully at the 49 pilot schools approved in L.A. Unified because they require one-year teaching contracts that do not place seniority as the top factor in job placement, giving administrators greater power to transfer teachers.

To control the quality of the new school, union President Warren Fletcher said those proposing it should operate it for a year to “get the kinks out” before seeking pilot status and a faculty vote on the shorter contract.

But Mohammed Choudhury, policy manager of Future is Now Schools, a not-for-profit group supporting pilot campuses, disagreed that schools should be required to operate for a year before becoming a pilot. Choudhury said that delaying pilot status would give the union a chance to lobby teachers against signing the shorter contract.

“It’s an attempt to protect mediocrity,” he said.

The not-for-profit, started by former Green Dot Public Schools chief Steve Barr, contributed $150,000 in stipends for Incubator School’s design team. Barr said it was better to place a pilot school on campuses with extra space, such as Venice High; otherwise, the district would be legally required to offer it to a charter school, which is publicly financed but independently run.

Bhatt, a teacher for 11 years who has been credited with boosting student achievement in English and math, said she came up with the idea for the school while working as an advisor for a New York start-up aiming to develop a science application for the iPad. The young entrepreneurs — many of them in their 20s who already had started their own firms — inspired her to think about how to refashion teaching to better prepare students for the accelerated advances in the digital world, she said.

“There’s a disconnect between a textbook-based world, the excitement of problem solving and the energy and innovation of the digital economy,” she said. “The reason students disconnect from school is that it’s not connected to the real world.”

The school is scheduled to open next year with an initial class of 225 sixth- and seventh-graders drawn from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. The students will learn such real-life skills as financial literacy and time management and they will combine academic learning with hands-on tinkering. They also will work with entrepreneurial mentors in the Westside’s growing Silicon Beach and be guided to produce their own start-up business by 8th grade. The school will eventually expand through 12th grade under current plans.

Aside from the Incubator School, the board also approved two other pilot schools, Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley and WISH Secondary Media Arts School in Los Angeles.