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Charter group aims high in South L.A.

Inner City Education Foundation plans to expand from 13 to 35 schools in eight years.

October 01, 2008|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

On its face, it's an ambitious plan: Expand one of Southern California's biggest charter groups from 13 to 35 schools in eight years until it becomes, in effect, the second-largest district in South Los Angeles.

But that's just the beginning.

Mike Piscal, the hard-charging founder of the Inner City Education Foundation, has a far more audacious goal than that. As he sees it, the expansion plan he is announcing today will lead to nothing less than the transformation of South L.A. "into a stable, economically vibrant community."

"These students . . . are going to come back to the community and become the middle class and the leadership class," he said in an interview. "That's going to change everything! Where the Crips were born, where crack cocaine was invented and spread throughout the country, we're going to start spreading something good."

Piscal, whose View Park Preparatory High School in the Crenshaw area claims to graduate 100% of its seniors and send virtually all of them to college, plans to open seven more schools next year and continue until he has reached 35 in 2016, divided roughly equally among elementary, middle and high schools.

The schools will all be within a zone bordered by four freeways -- the 10, 110, 105 and 405 -- and will include some of the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the nation. They will be in the Los Angeles Unified and the Inglewood school districts.

"They're doing some aggressive marketing," said L.A. Unified Supt. David Brewer, who said he didn't see the charter group's plan as a challenge to the traditional public schools. Those, he said, serve a much poorer, more troubled population than most charters. Still, he said, "We want to encourage them to be partners rather than us against them."

Charters are public schools that, in California, are typically authorized by districts but operate independent of them, using different curricula and, in the best of circumstances, making more efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Many charters, including Piscal's, are not unionized. They are intended to both challenge traditional schools and serve as petri dishes for reform and experimentation.

Los Angeles already is home to more charters than any other city in the country, with 145 operating under the loose supervision of the Los Angeles Unified School District. One of the largest operators, Green Dot Public Schools, began a new chapter in the charter movement this fall when it took over Locke High School, an L.A. Unified campus that was among the lowest-performing in the state. District officials are closely watching to see whether Green Dot can succeed.

"We're in a new phase," said Priscilla Wohlstetter, director of the Center on Educational Governance at USC, who has close ties to the charter school movement and is one of its leading researchers. "It used to be that charter schools were like fleas, or gnats -- you know, swat them away. Now that we know they're here to stay . . . the school district is becoming interested in what's happening inside the schools."

Green Dot founder Steve Barr said the Inner City Education Foundation announcement represented a new challenge to L.A. Unified. "I applaud it," he said. "I think it's awesome." Because many charters have long waiting lists, Barr said he would like to see 100 new ones open to "give every family a choice."

Piscal projected that, by the time his new schools are fully built and enrolled, his organization will be educating one of every four students in South L.A., and just over half of the high school students.

He also claimed -- and here, the math gets a little fuzzy -- that his schools will eventually produce more than four times as many college graduates as traditional public high schools in the area.

Piscal framed the expansion as the result of a failure by L.A. Unified to educate poor minority children, and called his group "a shark feeding on the carcass of a dead whale."

L.A. Unified, he said, is "like an airline where only one in 20 passengers arrive at the location where they're trying to go."

He singled out the four big L.A. Unified high schools in the area he has targeted: Crenshaw, Dorsey, Manual Arts and Washington Prep, as well as two Inglewood schools, Morningside and Inglewood High.

Piscal claimed that in 2005-06, the six schools graduated only 651 students who fulfilled the entry requirements for California State University and the University of California. Studies have shown that roughly 70% of the students who meet those requirements go on to graduate from a four-year college, according to the charter group.

Extrapolating from that, Piscal concluded that only 456 students a year from South L.A. -- an area with a population larger than Washington, D.C., or Seattle -- could be expected to graduate from college.

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