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Charter Schools Will Start With a Clean Slate : Learning: Freed from state control, educators will try new ways of improving student achievement and increasing enrollment.


PACIFIC PALISADES — Fast forward to September, when a cluster of Pacific Palisades schools will embark on an adventure the rest of Los Angeles will watch closely:

* At Palisades High School, students begin a new "humanitas" program by asking, "What does it mean to be human?" They are studying the history of ancient Greece, which first asked that question, reading "The Odyssey" and viewing art of that period, which idealized the human figure.

They also begin hours of community service, a new graduation requirement. And they meet for the first time with a faculty adviser/mentor for help in planning their courses--and futures.

* At Pacific Palisades Elementary, at-risk youngsters get special tutoring and after-school help, while parents are drawn into the process and offered English lessons where necessary.

* At Canyon Elementary, all grades focus on a single theme: living in an ecologically sensitive coastline community within the context of a global village. They learn first about the Santa Monica Bay area, and will later compare life here with that in other coastal communities throughout the world as expressed through literature and the arts. They will sail to the Catalina Island Marine Institute camp and study outside the school in a "learning grove" of trees.

* At Marquez Elementary, parents have agreed--in writing--to become more involved in their children's education and are attending meetings and classes at Marquez and its "sending schools," the inner-city campuses that relieve overcrowding by busing students to Westside schools.

These four new Palisades Charter Schools approved by the Los Angeles Unified School District board Monday are among the first in the country to achieve independent charter status as a group, freeing themselves from district and state control to try new ways of improving student achievement and increasing enrollment. Only a handful of states have passed such legislation; California's charter statute took effect in January.

When Paul Revere Middle School joins the group, probably within the next year, the Westside consortium will span grades K-12, involving thousands of students drawn from throughout the city. Several other elementary schools in the area are expected to come aboard later, although school districts can grant no more than 10 charters each and Los Angeles Unified now has seven.

The Palisades group is viewed by many as a bellwether of public education in Los Angeles, serving as a working model for school reforms still in the planning stages elsewhere.

"It will signal to a lot of parents that it's time to take a second look at public schools, that it is possible to have local control within the framework of a large public system," Westside board of education member Mark Slavkin said. "And it will lead the way in showing the district how to go."

He praised Pacific Palisades as "a community that wants to be first in line to move forward, to create a different and better format and to put decision-making and accountability at the local level."

Under the charter, expected to be ratified by the state Board of Education this month, parents, teachers and administrators at the four campuses are free to devise their own curricula, graduation requirements and teaching methods, but, initially, will continue to rely on the district for business services such as budgeting, transportation, cafeteria services and employee labor negotiations.

Slavkin said that defeat of the controversial charter proposal would have been "the last straw for many in the Westside community, who would walk away and say, 'I told you so.' " Under that scenario, enrollments would continue to drop, the statewide school voucher initiative would have a better chance of passage in November, and support would swell for the complete breakup of the massive school district, he said.

The Palisades Complex, a consortium of nine Westside schools that have been working together for several years, had proposed a single charter for the four schools within it that were ready to move ahead together. But that plan was opposed by district Supt. Sid Thompson and several civil rights groups.

They said it would, in effect, create a separate school district. The civil rights advocates said the charter status could be used to exclude minority youths or to shortchange those accepted into the program. They asked that charter status be withheld unless the Palisades schools commit themselves to eradicating all discrepancies in academic achievement between ethnic groups within three years.

The formal absence of a middle school also left a gap in the envisioned K-12 continuum, critics said. Paul Revere was seeking approval as a science magnet when the proposal was drafted and is only loosely included.

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