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Struggling charters face uncertain future

Popular support may lead the school board to spare two campuses that fail to meet guidelines on test scores.

June 12, 2007|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

By the rules, Discovery Charter Preparatory School in Pacoima ought to be doomed because its test scores have fallen from the penthouse to the cellar.

For its part, Pacifica Community Charter School in West Los Angeles raised eyebrows with its "learn as you feel like it" approach, which also produced low test scores. Pacifica didn't even receive a valid school score in 2004 and 2005.

The state says that to survive, charter schools must improve student achievement, and these schools, by key measures, have not.

So with the city's school board scheduled to decide today whether these schools will live or die, the decision should be easy.

Not necessarily.

Both schools have legions of defenders, and their fate raises broad questions about Los Angeles' growing charter school population. At present, 103 charter schools enroll more than 42,000 youngsters, about 6% of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Under a less formulaic approach, Discovery and Pacifica come out better; both schools have provided environments in which some students have clearly done well. But that's not good enough under the no-nonsense sink-or-swim paradigm of the district's charter school division.

Though some charters have thrived, L.A. Unified hasn't been especially helpful to flailing schools with potential, critics say. Until this year, the charter schools division would typically visit charter schools once a year; this year's multiple appointments have been about evaluation, not assistance -- a logical outcome given limited staffing and the political leanings of some school board members who have viewed charter schools as a drain on resources.

Discovery and Pacifica insist that they want to work with the district to improve. "We will make any changes your office deems necessary," Discovery Executive Director Matthew Macarah wrote to the charter division.

Those involved in both schools insist that their students would be badly served by shutting down the campuses.

"We meet kids' needs that neighborhood schools have been unable to provide for," said Beth Abels, who heads Pacifica's governing board.

Charter schools are independently operated under contracts with local school districts, which are charged with providing oversight. Charter schools are freed from many education code regulations, such as union work rules, in exchange for improving student achievement.

Charters are typically approved for five years; the sponsoring school district must decide whether to renew them. This year has been renewal time for 19 charter schools in Los Angeles.

As of 2005, the law has stated that charter schools must improve student achievement -- at least somewhat -- or maintain respectable test scores overall.

There is, however, potential flexibility in approving charters with poor test scores if a school district wants to find it, said Greg Geeting, a senior staff member with the state's charter school division. A charter school can pass muster, according to regulations, if its performance is judged "at least equal to the academic performance of the public schools that the charter school pupils would otherwise have been required to attend ... taking into account the composition of the pupil population that is served at the charter school."

Discovery, a high school with 360 students, hit a high point in standardized test scores during its second year, landing in the top 10% of schools that served a similar student population. But in 2005 and 2006, the school ranked in the lowest 10% overall and even in the lowest 10% of similar schools.

Macarah offers explanations for it all. The school's initial student population, he said, came from the nearby Community Charter Middle School, which delivered well-prepared, motivated students who continued to excel at Discovery.

But then Community opened its own high school and most of Discovery's students came instead from lower-achieving district middle schools, such as Maclay, Macarah said. That same year, a series of management crises eventually prompted Macarah to fire the school's principal, a move that divided students and faculty on the eve of state testing.

"Student leaders (among them, the student body president) advocated that, by way of protest to the firings, all students should sabotage the school's scores by selecting 'C' as their answer to every question on the test," Macarah wrote in a letter to the district. At year's end, "over 60% of the staff either left ... or was dismissed." That required a rebuilding effort, which included repaying most of a $500,000 debt and establishing a proper governing board.

The next year, scores improved but remained in the bottom 10%, although there may be an error in its comparison ranking with similar schools.

Macarah is hoping that a new comparison will show that his school's scores will at least rank favorably with schools enrolling similar students -- although that's not a sure thing, a state official said.

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