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Charter Schools' Growth Brings Cheers, Concern

The approval of Excel Academy, L.A.'s 100th independent campus, is cause for celebration, but some school board members seek to stem the flow of proposals.

March 30, 2006|Hemmy So | Times Staff Writer

Though Excel Academy doesn't yet have a student body, it has already earned a distinction that pleases some and worries others: It is the 100th charter school approved in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles school board's decision this month to approve Excel Academy's opening makes Los Angeles Unified School District the first in the nation to approve 100 charter schools -- an accomplishment celebrated Wednesday with speeches, balloons and student song and dance performances at Milagro Charter School.

"Los Angeles Unified has quickly become the nationwide leader in promoting innovative public school options, like charter schools, to tackle the challenges of low student achievement and overcrowding," said Caprice Young, president and chief executive of the California Charter Schools Assn.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run schools, free to try innovative teaching techniques intended to boost student achievement.

Wednesday's festive mood came amid concern on the part of district officials about the increasing number of charter schools in Los Angeles. School board member Jon Lauritzen introduced a motion at Tuesday's meeting to place a one-year moratorium on new charters.

"We've just gotten to the point where we've got all these charters out there and we don't know what they're doing," Lauritzen said. "We've got to slow down."

The school district has 86 operating charter schools, with 14 more getting ready to open. The California Charter Schools Assn. estimates that 115 schools will be operating by this fall, when middle school Excel Academy opens at the Boys & Girls Club in Lincoln Heights.

The first Los Angeles charter school opened in 1993. Eight years later there were 20, but within five more years, the number had more than quadrupled.

Kevin Reed, general counsel for L.A. Unified, said he was looking carefully at whether a moratorium on new charters would be legal in light of state law that strictly limits the circumstances under which a school district can reject a charter proposal.

Tuesday's motion also calls on Supt. Roy Romer to restructure the district's small charter school department to increase oversight of existing charters instead of focusing on proposals for new schools.

School board member Julie Korenstein, who has frequently criticized the growing number of charters in the district, voiced support for the motion.

"We're bursting at the seams right now," she said. "We need to evaluate whether we can handle any new charters and also hold existing charters accountable."

Board President Marlene Canter echoed Lauritzen's call for increased oversight of existing charters. "It's time to step back and reflect on what we already have," she said.

Canter reiterated that point at Wednesday's event, calling the 100th charter approval an appropriate milestone at which to shift the district's focus from approving charter schools to assessing them.

"There has to be a process by which we can analyze their processes and reaffirm them when they come up for review," she said.

Canter said she did not believe a moratorium on new schools was needed.

State law requires that district staff visit a charter school only once a year, said Greg McNair, head of L.A. Unified's charter office. McNair said he has begun to redeploy his 15-person staff to increase the number of surprise visits to charters.

Excel Academy is the eighth school to be operated by Partnership to Uplift Communities, a nonprofit organization dedicated to charter schools in northeast Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. The group already runs one elementary school, three middle schools and two high schools and has one school scheduled to open.

Co-founder Jacqueline Elliot said that she and partner Ref Rodriguez decided to open two more charter middle schools, based on the success of their existing schools, which take advantage of small size, parent involvement, assessment-based programs and partnerships with colleges and universities.

They also hoped to reach children during a period when they are vulnerable to dropping out of school.

"It's a critical time developmentally, a critical time educationally," Elliot said. "If they've already fallen behind in elementary school and the gaps are not filled in during middle school, by the time they get to high school, they lose their motivation."

Excel Academy will move into the space currently occupied by Milagro Charter School in Glassell Park. Milagro will move into the former Utilities Commission Training Center about a mile away.

Rodriguez said he hopes Excel Academy will eventually serve 300 students, though it will start with about 150.

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Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.

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