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Charter schools struggle to secure suitable campuses

L.A. Unified is required to provide space for charter schools, but many have been operating out of hotels and sharing campuses with traditional schools for years as unused campuses remain closed.

February 09, 2009|Raja Abdulrahim

More than five years ago, Ivy Academia's campus was a Hilton hotel. Students poured water from silver pitchers and teachers used ballrooms as classrooms, taping paper to the walls as modified blackboards.

The Woodland Hills charter school today has four locations, and officials are still fighting the Los Angeles Unified School District for a permanent campus. And they, like many other charters in the district, aren't having much luck.

The Board of Education voted Jan. 27 to open a shuttered San Fernando Valley school for a magnet rather than turn it over to a charter, which would have paved the way for Ivy Academia to apply for the space. The move angered the charter school and its advocates and left the board member who oversees the area shaking her head.

"I just wish it was a little more fleshed out . . . in terms of the funding, in terms of the educational plan," said Tamar Galatzan, who campaigned on the promise of opening four closed campuses in the Valley and pushed to have all of them designated for charters. "I feel it was done in haste," she said of the magnet plan.

The district closed the campuses in the 1980s because of declining enrollment. Three have been designated for charters -- schools that are independently run but receive public funding. L.A. Unified is bound by a 2000 law to provide facilities for charters, but Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said recently that the district has "a responsibility to provide space, and there are other spaces available."

School board member Marlene Canter went further, saying charters may not "necessarily get the schools they ask for."

It's not about preferential treatment, board members said, but about giving parents options on the types of schools their children attend.

"We're responsible for all the kids and all the programs," said Canter, who heads the district's charter committee. "There are lots of parents in our districts that want their kids to go to charters and there are lots of parents in our district that want their kids to go to magnets."

Still, charter school supporters say the fight over the closed Collins Street Elementary School in Woodland Hills underscores the problems charters are having in getting space from the district.

"When the rubber hits the road, here's another example of them shortchanging charter schools," said Gary Larson, spokesman for the California Charter Schools Assn.

The association sued L.A. Unified in 2007 over facilities allocations but came to a settlement, with the district renewing its promise to charters, Larson said.

"The district is beginning to teeter very closely on violating the spirit and letter of that agreement," he said.

At least 50 charter schools have applied for space in the district for the coming academic year, Larson said, but if the offers from previous years are any indication, there might not be much hope. In 2007, a school in the San Fernando Valley was offered space near Los Angeles International Airport. Fewer than 10% of the district's offers were acceptable last year, Larson said.

"There's a level between frustration and anger in the charter community," he said.

Last year, a proposal by the district to allow charters to share space on several traditional school campuses was met with an uproar. Parents and teachers at the potential host schools worried that their programs would be affected and that overcrowding would return. Cortines, senior deputy superintendent at the time, sought a review of how the move would affect both the charter and regular schools.

In the end, several traditional schools that strongly opposed sharing their campuses were taken off the list.

Galatzan said she was supportive of a magnet school at Collins Street but criticized the proposal as being motivated by the building's location rather than by instructional vision. And she, like Cortines, is not certain the district has the money to reopen the campus.

As either a magnet or charter school, the building would have to be modernized, including bringing it up to code on fire safety and fixing the electrical system, said John Creer, the district's director for planning and development. He said a similar building cost $12 million to renovate recently.

Magnet schools, long considered the gems of the school district, were formed as a desegregation tool. They offer specialized programs in subjects such as math and science, humanities or performing arts, and most are highly competitive for admission. Students must apply, and most acceptances are based on a point system. About 25,000 L.A. Unified students are on waiting lists for magnet schools.

Galatzan said she is cautiously optimistic after hearing Sharon Curry, who heads the magnet program, and Guy Mehula, L.A. Unified's chief facilities executive, assure the board that funds are available for a magnet school. But still she has her doubts.

"I'm not opposed to magnet schools," she said. "But we have no idea if we're going to be able to run this school as a magnet."

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raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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Howard Blume contributed to this report.

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