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Charter School Taking Shape in Inglewood

Education: Despite district resistance to the idea, final arrangements are underway for the high school to open in August for students in the class of 2006.

July 16, 2002|SANDRA MURILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took a direct appeal to the state Board of Education, but classes at Inglewood's first charter high school will soon be in session.

Steve Barr, who founded the successful Animo Leadership Charter High School in neighboring Lennox, is working hard to re-create that success in Inglewood.

In the next month, his staff will draft a curriculum and finish interviewing prospective teachers. Last, but not least, a construction crew will revamp the fifth floor of an old hospital on Manchester Boulevard which, beginning Aug. 26, will house 143 members of the Animo Inglewood class of 2006.

It's a frenzy of preparation for a school that the Inglewood School District would prefer did not exist.

Last year, the district rejected Barr's proposal for the school, saying it wanted time to implement its own reforms. Some school board members voiced concern that Animo would skim off the best students from the district's two under-performing high schools and that it would not reflect the city's racial demographics.

The proposal for Animo essentially said that a private group could do a better job than public school officials and "that's something they don't want to hear," Barr said. "It's like me knocking on Staples' door and saying 'Hi, I'm from Office Smart. I want to put my store next to yours, and I need your permission.' "

But last December, the state board overruled the district and, on the basis of the Lennox school's high test scores, granted Barr the charter. Animo students scored about 35% higher on language arts and math portions of the state's high school exit exam than their counterparts in the Centinela Valley Union High School District, where most of the Animo students would have been assigned.

Of the approximately 432 charter schools that operate in California, only Inglewood Animo and four others were granted charters by the state. State officials, rather than the school district, assume some oversight responsibilities, such as inspecting facilities.

Charter schools are public institutions funded with tax dollars but freed from most state regulations and allowed to remain independent of a school district. That autonomy, supporters say, allows them to tailor programs to students' needs and to reduce bureaucracy.

The Animo, Spanish for "spirit" or "vigor," curriculum is designed so that every student can fulfill the requirements for entrance to the University of California. The students wear uniforms and are assigned individual laptop computers to use in class and at home. Parents must commit a certain number of service hours to the school.

The Lennox school, which has a $2.2-million budget, was the first of several charter schools that Barr plans to start in Los Angeles County through his nonprofit Green Dot Public Schools. Animo Inglewood has a budget of about $1.5 million. Both schools are supported by state funding and numerous grants.

In Lennox, where there are no high schools, Barr and his company enjoyed support from school officials eager to provide eighth-graders with an alternative to the low-scoring and crime-plagued Centinela Valley district. When recruitment time came, the Animo staff was given access to the schools and allowed to make its pitch directly to the students.

Applications poured in and soon a waiting list was necessary. Animo Lennox has grown from 140 students to 420 since it opened in August 2000.

Every year, the Animo schools will add one more class, until they include all high school grade levels, with 560 students.

But Barr said he has received an icy welcome from the neighboring Inglewood school district, and recruitment there has required a little more creativity. Using some old contacts at the Inglewood schools, Animo staff members were able to compile a list of the phone numbers and addresses of most of the district's eighth-graders. The staff mailed fliers, called parents and organized several open houses at neighborhood churches.

"It was very emotional," Barr said, describing the meetings with Inglewood parents. "A mother of an eighth-grader, speaking in broken English, said her son was halfway through the school year and still had no math teacher. They couldn't believe what we were offering their kids."

The main concerns of parents are school safety and low academic standards at the high schools, Barr said.

For the last two years, Morningside and Inglewood high schools have received the lowest possible ranking--one out of 10--on the Academic Performance Index.

Recently, the district has tried to implement some changes. It started City Honors High School this year, in which some students with high grade point averages took courses at a nearby community college. Since 1999, the school has added several Advanced Placement classes. Still, nearly 30% of Inglewood's students of high school age go to private schools or other school districts.

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