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School Checks In to the Hilton

Students learn in an unusual setting after city officials say their new charter campus hasn't completed the inspections process.

September 15, 2004|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

The students scattered their tiny Batman and Cinderella backpacks across the carpet in the Woodland Hills Hilton hotel grand ballroom Tuesday. They spent recess on the tennis courts and studied math equations under chandelier lamps. Bellhops brought large silver pitchers full of water.

"We now have a five-star school," parent Diana Young said jokingly.

The Ivy Academia Charter School's 180 students are not allowed on their real campus -- a former bingo hall and men's suit warehouse in Woodland Hills -- because Los Angeles city officials say the school has not gone through all the required safety inspections.

As a result, students enrolled in the new school have attended class in hotels and churches and spent two days on field trips to museums since its start last week. School director Tatyana Berkovich said the bureaucracy and red tape put up by the Los Angeles Unified School District and City Councilman Dennis Zine have discouraged parents. Forty families have dropped out.

The charter school aims to teach kids how to run a business. Already, they are getting real-life lessons.

"It's fun to see all the different places," said sixth-grader Jenny Lewis, 11, who hadn't been in a hotel since a family trip six years ago. "But it's complicated because we have no desks, and teachers barely have anything to write on."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 16, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Charter school -- An article in Wednesday's California section about a charter school that was holding classes in a Woodland Hills hotel said the school's directors spent more than $50,000 renovating its De Soto Avenue campus. They spent $500,000 improving the site.

Charter schools are financed by state taxes and exempted from numerous state education regulations. They must be authorized by local school districts, counties or the state. Los Angeles Unified approved Ivy Academia's charter school application in February.

Berkovich and her husband, Eugene Selivanov, created the school to teach students about entrepreneurial skills, stocks and bonds, teamwork and management.

The Los Angeles Board of Education considered revoking the school's charter just two weeks before the start of the school year because it contended that Ivy Academia had allowed 70 more students to enroll than the 285 the district authorized and that it did not hold a lottery for seat openings. The district also said the school added more grade levels than it initially had planned and that district officials did not receive paperwork from school directors in a timely manner. But the school board allowed the school to open, despite concerns.

Berkovich said the charter approval process took so long that the school lost the first building it had chosen. The directors found a new site on De Soto Avenue and began leasing it in late June. They spent more than $50,000 renovating and installing walls, ceilings, air conditioning, and phone and Internet systems, she said.

Berkovich now wants a temporary occupancy permit because she said she didn't have enough time to complete all of the requirements for the building. "They just make us go through loops and hoops," she said.

Leasing space in hotels is costing the school more than $1,000 a day, Berkovich said. She said she also spent more than $3,000 chartering buses to send the students on field trips last week.

Councilman Zine said Berkovich was trying to cut corners and has not completed the safety inspections required for the building. He said he did not object to charters but was concerned about student safety.

"She's been well informed," he said. "She doesn't want to follow the rules."

District and city officials say it usually takes more than six weeks to complete the myriad fire, traffic and other safety inspections. Roberta Benjamin, director of charter schools for L.A. Unified, said her office repeatedly has warned Ivy Academia leaders over the last year to clear safety inspections. Benjamin said the district is monitoring the situation.

Facility issues are a major challenge for charter campuses, said Gary Larson of the California Charter Schools Assn., a nonprofit network that serves the state's 537 charter schools. He said one charter school in Northern California spent several weeks teaching kids in the local park and a library because of the difficulty of finding space.

In the Hilton's Trillium Grand Ballroom, meanwhile, five teachers taught classes Tuesday. Binders, pencils, a Bugs Bunny lunchbox and an empty Frosted Flakes box replaced the folded napkins and centerpieces on the round dinner tables. One teacher wrote 23+60=83 on a big piece of yellow paper that she attached to the wall with duct tape.

In a corner, a teacher reviewed note-taking skills and class assignments. "Is everybody hanging in there?" she asked her 16 students who sat cross-legged or crouched on their knees.

Next door in Salon Ballroom C, fifth-graders sat in pairs on the floor. In the cramped room, teacher Jessica Rodriguez, 23, tripped and knocked over a tin can full of colored markers.

"It's challenging," she said. "But I can teach anywhere."

Upstairs in the executive offices, another class took place next door to a Smith Barney luncheon.

"The bottom line is we just want kids to get into the classrooms, and have a normal day," said Young, who enrolled her son at Ivy Academia because she believed in the school's goals to prepare students for the business world.

But the lessons in management came a little too fast for some students.

"It's hard and weird," said Marissa Forn, 6. "I want to be in a real school and learning."

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