Students at Hip Hop High know all about adversity. For many, life has been a minefield of gangs, violence and family chaos. They were academic failures, most of them, kicked out of school after school, allowed to fail their way from one grade to the next.
At their charter school in Hawthorne, they say, they found a home -- a place that is quirky and rough-hewn, but one where students are given the motivation to learn.
Now, they fear, a bureaucratic breakdown will cause the school, formally known as the Media Arts Academy Charter School, to close.
The Centinela Valley Union High School District, which charters the school, delivered notice on July 1 that its charter had lapsed and that Media Arts would not be allowed to apply for renewal.
Principal Jennifer Murphy said the decision was the result of a misunderstanding about the terms of the charter, which she thought was valid until 2009. She said she was convinced that the district, intent on closing her school, deliberately failed to warn her that the charter was about to expire.
"They literally have been lying in wait to do this," she said Tuesday night, after dozens of Media Arts students and parents appeared before the Centinela school board to plead for reconsideration. Murphy said she believes the district used a technicality to avoid a potentially contentious renewal process, which requires a public vote and can be appealed.
Charters are public schools that are authorized by school districts and operate under their supervision but are allowed independence in finance and curriculum. With an enrollment of about 140 in the school year that just ended, Media Arts offers a project-based curriculum that includes a focus on recording arts and gives students the opportunity to create music -- hence its nickname, Hip Hop High.
"You're shutting our dreams down," student Sergio Baccio told the board, which listened impassively and did not comment on the school's fate.
Another student, Giovanna Zepeda, told the board that in traditional schools, "people looked at me like a low-life gangster. . . . When I got to Media Arts Academy, they looked at me different, they looked at me like I was somebody." Sobbing, she continued, "This is the only place we can be ourselves and express ourselves."
Caprice Young, president and chief executive of the California Charter Schools Assn., said it was highly unusual for a district to give a school no warning before its charter expires. Most districts send the notice a year in advance, she said, adding that Centinela Valley, which operates high schools in Hawthorne, Lawndale and Lennox, has a reputation as one of the most "charter-hostile" districts in the state.
Jose Fernandez, interim superintendent of the district, insisted that Centinela Valley was friendly to charter schools, although Media Arts is the only one it has ever approved. Other charter schools that operate within Centinela Valley's borders received their authority from underlying elementary school districts.
Fernandez said the issue was simple. "Their application expired. They basically ran the clock out," he said. Asked why he hadn't given Murphy any warning, Fernandez said, "I think she should know her renewal date better than myself."
Murphy said she learned that her charter was in danger when she received a letter sent by Fernandez on July 1, saying the charter had been "terminated without renewal effective June 30, 2008."
That is the date given in the school board resolution that authorized the charter on June 23, 2003. However, Murphy pointed to language in the charter itself that said it "shall begin on the first day of instructional operations and expire five years thereafter."
Media Arts founders initially planned to open in the fall of 2003 but postponed the launch one year. Based on that, Murphy said, the charter should expire in fall 2009. Young said Media Arts staff had recently completed a renewal workshop run by the charter association and "were responsibly preparing for that process."
Young said her staff is examining documents to see whether the school has a legal case against the district. If not, its only option would be to apply for a new charter, which takes at least 60 days, and appeal to the county or state if the charter is denied.
Media Arts has a mixed academic record, as might be expected from a school whose students have typically failed in traditional public schools. Still, after a rocky start, its Academic Performance Index shot up by more than 150 points in 2007, from 386 to 537, and teachers and parents have said the school improved further this year under Murphy's direction.