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California : Two worlds on one campus : Adversarial air remains as Pearl and Birmingham settle into the new, segregated arrangement.

November 15, 2009|Mitchell Landsberg

On a quiet Sunday in September, a strange scene played out at the school once known simply as Birmingham High.

A locksmith strode onto campus, escorted by Los Angeles Unified School District police. They made their way along outdoor corridors to Room G-44, a large classroom wired as a computer lab. The locks were replaced with shiny new ones. Furniture was removed.

Mission accomplished, the group left.

Thus did Supt. Ramon C. Cortines resolve a dispute over classroom space between two schools now sharing the campus in the San Fernando Valley community of Lake Balboa. Fed up with stalled negotiations over control of that one room, the superintendent said he decided to simply take the room from Birmingham Community Charter High School and give it to the much smaller Daniel Pearl Journalism and Communications Magnet High School, his district's last outpost on a campus otherwise given over to charters.

"I don't think it's one of my greatest moments," he conceded in an interview. He denied reports by Birmingham staff that he was present during the raid, saying of his role: "I was kept informed."

Privately, Birmingham staff expressed indignation over the incident, which came at a time when things seemed to be settling down after a year of turmoil over the school's conversion to charter status. One of the touchiest issues has been how to divide space for the two schools that share, not very comfortably, a single campus. (A third school, High Tech Charter High, is also on the site.)

But then, real estate is at the crux of most disputes about charter schools in Los Angeles. Do charters have the same rights to district property as traditional schools? Who decides? What is happening at Birmingham may be a harbinger of a larger battle, as L.A. Unified puts as many as 250 schools up for bid by both district and outside entities. Or it might just be the fruit of Birmingham's tumultuous recent history.

Charters are public schools that are given independence from the rules and management of traditional school districts. Magnets, like Pearl, are usually district-run and by court order must attract a racially diverse student body by offering special programs. Pearl is named after the Wall Street Journal reporter and Birmingham graduate who was kidnapped in Pakistan and slain by Islamic militants in 2002.

Until this year, Pearl was part of Birmingham High, a once-storied school whose academic reputation has suffered over time. Once predominantly white and middle class, the school has become poorer and serves many immigrant families, mostly Latinos. Birmingham was allowed to convert to a charter in July, some eight months after a majority of teachers signed a petition in favor of the change, and Pearl was supposed to be part of the new school.

But many Pearl teachers were among the sizable, vocal minority that opposed the charter. When the Pearl staff proposed breaking off from the rest of the school, Cortines agreed -- over howls of protest from charter supporters, who said the move violated state education law.

With Cortines taking a strong personal role in the following months, L.A. Unified has spared no expense to support the Pearl magnet, which has seen a sharp drop in enrollment -- from roughly 500 to 330 -- since splitting off from the larger school, which now has roughly 2,600 students.

At a time of severe budget cuts in most schools, L.A. Unified has given Pearl $117,000 in bond funding for computers and other technology and has paid to keep three of six teachers who faced reassignment because of the enrollment decline.

Pearl also brought in new teachers for courses such as physical education that were provided by Birmingham last year.

All this has meant, among other things, that Pearl has been able to keep class sizes even smaller than last year, with most below 30 and some as small as 11. Most L.A. Unified schools have seen significant increases in class size this year.

Cortines said he owed it to the school to provide the extra resources, especially after the turmoil its students experienced last year.

"I think we have the responsibility," he said. "If you're going to establish a school, a separate school unto itself, it's not any different than when we open a new school -- we give extra support for almost a year before the school opens."

This hasn't been an easy year for those at Pearl. Students complain that they have been stopped from setting foot on the adjacent charter grounds and have been shunned by their old teachers and classmates. "A lot of my friends don't really talk to me anymore," said senior Virginia Gomez. "My old Spanish teacher saw me over there and she told me to get off and get to my side."

Said Sarah Bradford, Pearl's student body president: "It seems like Birmingham just doesn't like us."

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