If somebody told you that a public agency had spent years constructing one of the most expensive secondary schools in the world without any precise idea of what would be taught there or who the students would be, you'd say, "Don't be ridiculous."
Then you'd remember that the Los Angeles Unified School District really does exist.
As The Times' Mitchell Landsberg reported Monday, the LAUSD's latest problem involves the controversy concerning the $242-million downtown high school of the arts, whose as yet unopened Coop Himmelblau-designed campus with its landmark tower occupies the Grand Avenue site across the Hollywood Freeway from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
It may be behind schedule and more than $100 million over budget, but from ceramics studio to library to state-of-the-art theater, the new campus is a spectacular facility. After touring the school recently, one arts educator called the facilities "jaw-dropping."
The school is supposed to open in the fall but has neither principal nor staff; no curriculum nor even clear admissions policies. That's caused the arts and education advocates who conceived the project and urged the district to build it -- foremost among them philanthropist Eli Broad -- to threaten to withhold their support unless the campus is turned over to a reputable charter school operator capable of running it.
The district and the advocates are further divided over who should attend. Ultimately, Broad and his allies would like to see most of the student body selected on a citywide basis. This, they argue, would not only be the fairest way to use the expensive new school but the best way to guarantee its excellence. The district -- and, particularly, Richard Alonzo, the local district superintendent -- want all but 300 of the school's 1,700 spots to go to students from the neighborhoods surrounding downtown and the Pico-Union area. The district contends that because these heavily Latino neighborhoods historically have suffered with some of the city's most overcrowded schools, their young people should have first claim on any new seats.
To understand what this standoff is all about, you have to go back a decade, when the school board voted to stop construction on the scandal-ridden Belmont Learning Complex. In its place, they pledged to build several reasonably sized neighborhood high schools. (A subsequent board decided to complete the Belmont complex, which opened in 2008 with a new name, the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center.)
It was ultimately decided that one of the other schools, to be built on the site of the district's former headquarters, would be an arts school. Its proponents envisioned a student body drawn from the district's most talented pupils. But parents from the Temple-Beaudry and Pico-Union neighborhoods -- along with their elected officials -- were suspicious of this plan. They'd put up with years of overcrowding and had no confidence in the board's promises. The result was a commitment by the board to reserve a majority of the arts school slots for local young people for as long as overcrowding persisted in the area. With the completion of two new secondary campuses, "that moment has come and gone," according to former board member David Tokofsky.
District officials say that, after falling off for many years, the area's high-school-age population is climbing again.
Are they right? Who knows? Attempting to get a secure handle on the LAUSD's "official" numbers on everything from attendance to the dropout rate is like trying to follow Bernie Madoff's accounting.
There's another concern lurking here, though. The LAUSD's Alonzo told Landsberg that he resists opening admissions to citywide competition because "these are kids who don't have the social capital of parents who have supported them and paid for them to have piano and dance lessons since they were 3 or 4 years of age." That may be, but given the fact that the LAUSD's student population is 73% Latino, 11% African American, 9% Anglo and 4% Asian, it hardly seems that citywide admissions would turn the new arts school into a bastion of white privilege.
Unfortunately, the new high school of the arts is caught in one of those peculiar Los Angeles time warps -- a gap created by the disparity between old grievances and the uncertain but hopeful future. Whether or not it was a good idea to build such a lavish arts education facility, we now have one. It, like our children, deserves a chance to succeed, which is why the district should hand the campus over to a competent charter organization and open admissions to the city as a whole. There's a difference between excellence and elitism.