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Independence Day? : Teachers Propose School Free of L.A. Unified Control


In an attempt to revamp the way public schools are run, six teachers at 99th Street Elementary School in South-Central have proposed starting a new school that would give parents, teachers and other staff members control over all financial and academic matters.

Karin Berger, one of the chief architects of the Accelerated School plan, said she and other teachers want to open a radically new school next fall that would be funded with state money and completely independent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The school's curricula would be similar to the Accelerated Schools Model already in place at 99th Street School, which is designed to boost the achievement of at-risk students by requiring all youngsters--even slower learners--to learn the same material. Parents would voluntarily enroll their children and would be required to spend at least three hours a month volunteering at the school. The Accelerated School, which would be somewhere in South-Central, would accept students from anywhere in the state.

"What's most attractive about this is the governance structure of the school," Berger said. "Teachers, parents and the community develop a vision for the school, and any major decision made for the school is made by everyone."

The teachers, who submitted their petition to Los Angeles school board members last month, are taking advantage of the 1992 Charter Schools Act, which took effect in January. The school board is expected to make a decision by mid-September.

Under the law, as many as 100 schools in California and 10 in any district can achieve charter status, which continues the school's public funding but frees it from state and local education regulations. The charter lasts for five years and is subject to revocation by the local school board, but only if the charter schools mishandle money or fail to meet their stated goals.

The Los Angeles school board has already approved charter petitions from nine schools--two in the San Fernando Valley, four in Pacific Palisades and three on the Westside. Along with the Accelerated School, Options for Youth, an independent-study program for high school students in Hollywood, is waiting for a school board decision.

The teachers from the 99th Street School said the fact that their petition to start the Accelerated School plan is the only one from Central Los Angeles might increase its approval chances.

"The Senate bill said priority needs to be given to academically low-achieving schools," Berger said. "And school board members have expressed a concern that none of the schools that have applied are from the inner city."

But unlike other applicants, the Accelerated School is asking for complete financial autonomy, which concerns district officials.

"One of the big questions is: Where are the petitioners going to get the money for start-up costs?" said Joseph Rao, district administrative coordinator.

Rao said the school would receive state funds based primarily on the school's average daily attendance, but would not receive any money to lease a new site or buy equipment.

The teachers, who estimate that they need to raise $200,000 to $400,000 to lease a site and buy new equipment, said they have been exploring grant possibilities and are trying to attract corporate sponsors to the project.

"We're talking about 100% accountability," said Johnathan Williams, another teacher involved with the project. "I want to feel responsible for whether I do a good job or not. But right now, I don't feel responsible for the district's mismanagement, and yet we all have had to pay for it."

After their salaries were cut 10% earlier this year, the teachers proposed turning 99th Street School into a charter school, but received lukewarm support from the rest of the staff.

During a vote, six teachers cast ballots for total separation, 14 wanted a charter but did not want total independence from the district and seven did not want any type of charter.

Unwilling to abandon the idea, the teachers in favor of total separation decided to write their own charter application for the Accelerated School.

Although most did not want to join the teachers at the new school, 28 of the 30 teachers at 99th Street School showed their support by signing the charter application.

Meanwhile, 99th Street School Principal Althea Woods said her school is considering applying for its own charter petition, but it would call for only partial separation from the district.

"We don't want to be responsible for insurance, rental payments or maintenance," Woods said. "So much energy and time is expended taking care of things like that that it would draw away from what we're most about at 99th Street School, which is accelerated learning."

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