Emotions ran high on the first day of class Monday at two new South Los Angeles charter schools. Faces brimmed with anticipation, pride and nervousness. And those were just the principals.
"It's exciting opening up any new school," Lori Pawinski, principal at Animo Jackie Robinson Charter High School, said as she sat in her sparse office and tried to assign several wide-eyed ninth-graders to a homeroom. "You're always going to be the first graduating class, the first principal. It's exciting but also a little nerve-racking."
The debut of Animo Jackie Robinson and Animo Jefferson public charter schools, operated by Green Dot Public Schools, is the biggest salvo yet in the bid to radically transform nearby Jefferson High School, where low achievement and racial tension made it the poster child for what is wrong with public education in Los Angeles.
Charters are publicly funded but independently run schools that are granted greater flexibility in exchange for a promise to improve student achievement. Last year, charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District scored 709 in Academic Performance Index base test scores compared with 683 for non-charter public schools, according to an analysis by the California Charter Schools Assn. Other studies, however, have shown mixed academic results for charters.
Eleven charter schools are scheduled to open in the vicinity of troubled Jefferson High this fall and several others are planned for next year.
Five of the new charters will be operated by Green Dot, whose founder, Steve Barr, mounted a failed attempt to take over Jefferson last year.
District officials have been critical of Barr's subsequent campaign to open charters and lure students, parents and teachers from Jefferson.
But the clash yielded an unusual arrangement for Green Dot in which the Jefferson and Jackie Robinson charters are located on the new campus of the district's yet-to-be-named Central New Middle School No. 4 on Hill Street just south of Jefferson Boulevard.
The new school year will be a challenge for the district and the charters: L.A. Unified will be pressed to maintain enrollment and prove that its new educational reforms at Jefferson are working. Meanwhile, the charter school mantra of smaller is better will be put to the test on a much larger scale.
The school district last spring approved the charters, which include three more Green Dot schools, three schools operated by the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, Frederick Douglass Academy Middle School, Frederick Douglass High School and Garr Academy of Mathematics and Entrepreneurial Studies.
L.A. Unified Supt. Roy Romer and several school board members could not be persuaded that Jefferson needed to be taken over by Barr or anyone else.
Barr believes that the charters will boost student achievement but he is disappointed that he will not control Jefferson.
"The five schools near Jefferson are going to transform the area," Barr said. "But I'm also disappointed that we couldn't get the district to work with us on a greater level. We're going to be applying constant pressure to open it up to create a full partnership."
Barr recently began organizing parents to take on the education establishment, believing that they can transform individual schools -- and ultimately, the district.
"I can keep building charter schools but I don't see the point of it," said Barr, whose group runs five other charters in low-income communities around Los Angeles County. "What Green Dot is about is leveraging our successes to create political will and demand to the point that school districts make changes."
The Green Dot charters have made some provocative moves. A lottery for 640 spaces at the new schools attracted more than 1,000 student applications and there are already waiting lists. Similarly, there were 800 applications for 80 new faculty positions open this year.
At the Animo Jefferson charter school, which opened with 145 students, nearly all of the faculty formerly worked for L.A. Unified, including Principal Tom Nichols, who served as an assistant principal last year at Santee High School.
Nichols recruited the school's seven teachers from Santee. All jumped at the chance to work in a small school environment that stresses parental involvement and classroom innovation.
"I worked for 13 years in LAUSD, and I learned a lot," Nichols said. "But we can make decisions here without going through three layers of bureaucracy."
L.A. Unified officials could not provide information on what effect the new charter schools have had on the enrollment at Jefferson High, which is scheduled to open next week on a traditional September-June calendar and will be composed of several small academies aimed at offering students more individualized attention.
Romer acknowledged the promise and challenge of operating in a new environment of more competition.