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'Blue Ribbon' School's Move Criticized

Education: Some parents oppose removing magnet campus from Mid-City area, but principal says the shift has broad support.

December 05, 1999|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Blue crepe paper streamers wafted in the breeze. Beaming students donned navy blue T-shirts and sweatshirts. Even the principal sported a blue dress.

Under an appropriately azure sky, Community Magnet School last week celebrated its status as Los Angeles' only winner of a National Blue Ribbon award, a prestigious U.S. Department of Education recognition of excellence.

But amid the sea of blue some parents were seeing only red.

That is because, they say, the high-achieving, innovative elementary school is being wrested from the Mid-City community it has called home for a quarter of a century. Come fall 2001, it will relocate to new quarters nearly seven miles to the west, where it will share the neglected campus of Walgrove Elementary School in West Los Angeles, a few blocks from Venice High School.

"It was presented as a take-it-or-leave-it deal, and we had only two weeks to decide," said Dan Kuffel, a parent whose two sons attend kindergarten and third grade at Community. "Why do they have to take the only Blue Ribbon school in Los Angeles? To me, they cherry-picked the best school from Mid-City and moved it to the Westside."

Neighborhood residents said the move distresses them in particular because it comes on the heels of the departure of the area's only other elementary magnet school, the Open Magnet Charter School. Students from Open School, which had burst the seams of its location a couple of blocks west of Community on the campus of Crescent Heights School, are now being bused to a Westchester campus.

Opponents of Community's move fret that many children will be forced to spend an additional hour or more each day on buses. About 70% of the 368 students live east of the school's current location, many of them in Koreatown.

"I'm a little worried about it," Jin Ha, the mother of a kindergartner, said Thursday amid the Blue Ribbon festivities. "The good part would be having new classrooms, but it's too far away."

Community's principal, Pamela Marton, maintains that most of the school's students, parents and teachers are delighted about the move, despite the haste with which they had to consider the option in June. Moreover, she said, district officials had warned Community that the only other available spaces were in the West Valley.

"We'd been asking for a new facility for many years," she said. "Our school is old and dilapidated. The future looked very bleak here."

Indeed, she related, the U.S. Department of Education representative who visited the campus to assess its worthiness for a Blue Ribbon Award was flabbergasted at what Community has accomplished in spite of its inadequate facilities. When he met with Los Angeles Unified School District officials, he asked why nothing had been done to improve the situation.

Community is crammed into a corner of the campus of the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a middle-through-high school magnet on West 18th Street. The elementary school has no cafeteria or auditorium. It has no art room, even though it is an arts and humanities magnet.

To accommodate class-size reduction, parents converted the school library and a bathroom into classrooms. The 36 teachers and teacher aides and office staff share one toilet. When it rains, students must eat in their classrooms.

Against the odds, teachers and the school's devoted parents have made the place a nurturing home, painting colorful murals and creating a palpable sense of, well, community.

That spirit has permeated the school since its founding a quarter of a century ago. At the time, Mid-City schools were segregated. A group of like-minded African American and Jewish parents joined forces to create an alternative school that would bridge the cultural divide separating their urban communities.

Ever since, the school has gained a reputation for parent involvement and student achievement. More than half the enrollment is Asian American and African American, and students come from across the city.

The entire school community, Marton said, was polled about the move, and most families ultimately said they favored the idea. For many, it was a wrenching decision that involved looking past concerns of geography and convenience.

"I had to step back and say, 'What's better for this school?' " said parent Deanna Straugh.

At the new location, district officials have promised to spend about $5 million, and possibly more, on new single-story and double-decker bungalows, landscaping and multipurpose facilities. Marton has vowed to establish a close, cooperative relationship with Walgrove, although there is talk of separating the two schools with a fence.

Among other possible connections, Community plans to open its vaunted after-school program to the other school's pupils and to have its teachers mentor their Walgrove counterparts.

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