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UCLA's Lab School expansion is postponed

Tough economic times delay the university's effort to replicate its Westwood educational program in lower-income areas.

October 13, 2009|Carla Rivera

In a sign of challenging economic times, UCLA has put on hold indefinitely plans to open a second campus of its experimental laboratory school, a project that had been touted as a major effort to expand its mission to low-income communities beyond Westwood.

The UCLA Lab School had planned to open classrooms in South Los Angeles or the Pico-Union district near downtown, bringing its research-based programs directly to areas of poverty and low expectations.

It was to be a new educational model, the first of two or three other campuses that would reach into Los Angeles' urban neighborhoods.

Instead, the school has had to return grants, reduce its staff and will lose the project's key visionary, Principal Jim Kennedy, who said this will be his last year there. Kennedy, who took over in 2007, believed that these campuses could boost academic achievement and improve college readiness in some of the area's toughest communities.

Kennedy said he was discouraged that there wasn't a commitment to continue the planning and fundraising for the project once the economy eases.

"It doesn't appear to be a strong enough priority to survive the current economic difficulties," he said.

The expansion had won the support of UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block who as recently as July said in an online campus update: "Plans are now underway to establish a second campus in the city, where tuition will be reduced or forgiven, based on families' ability to pay. We are delighted to be able to reach out to our community in these ways."

But California's public universities have struggled with severe budget cuts, resulting in staff pay cuts and higher student fees. The Lab School expansion would have been too costly, said Aimee Dorr, dean of UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, which oversees the elementary school.

"Due primarily to the economic downturn and [questions] about the various models that have been on the table for the Lab School initiative, it's on a go-slow track until we work out the feasibility," Dorr said. "It isn't the case that it will never happen but it's not something that can be done right now."

Dorr said the question of whether to move forward with the Lab School expansion would need to be revisited in light of UCLA's other investments in the community. The university worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District to develop a pilot school at the site of the former Ambassador Hotel and collaborates with three public schools near its campus. The Lab School is not directly involved in any of those initiatives.

Lab School administrators had considered operating the satellite campuses as publicly financed charter schools, alleviating the need for a major outlay of funds and opening the possibility that they, along with others, could bid for campuses under construction by L.A. Unified.

Because charters are free from many of the regulations that govern public schools, the Lab School branches could have continued to experiment, Kennedy said. Dorr said there had not been enough time to study the charter model.

Many Lab School parents are upset at the decision and are trying to persuade both UCLA and Kennedy to reconsider. Others questioned the wider ramifications for the university.

"I would hope that UCLA would not suffer a brain drain because of financial problems, but examples like this one make you think," said Matthew E. Kahn, a UCLA professor of economics whose 8-year-old son attends the Lab School. Kennedy "had captivated the school with his vision of what he hoped to build in other communities."

Former L.A. City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, a member of the school's board of advisors whose two sons are enrolled there, said he is committed to pushing forward on the community campuses.

"Whatever research that needs to be done to figure out the best process to go forward will be something I'll continue to pursue," said Delgadillo. "To have a campus in South Los Angeles or East Los Angeles or Pacoima remains a dream for people associated with the school."

Kennedy had spearheaded the school's name change from the Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School in anticipation that new campuses would adopt the Lab School moniker. The 450-student school, off Sunset Boulevard at the north end of the UCLA campus, is recognized throughout the nation for its research on classroom technology, team teaching, multi-age grouping and English language proficiency.

As a laboratory school, it is a quasi-public, quasi-private institution that charges $13,200 in annual tuition and admits students, ages 4 to 12, based on race, gender and socioeconomic status to mirror the state's demographics. It eschews grades and standardized testing.

Four teachers had already been hired to begin studying the Lab School curriculum. Two of the new teachers will remain on the Westwood campus, but two other teaching posts were eliminated. The project had struggled to find suitable facilities and -- at least initially -- to gain support from major foundations, which favor public schools, rather than independent ones like the Lab School, Kennedy said.

But it had begun attracting more philanthropic interest. Kennedy returned a $100,000 grant from the Ludwick Family Foundation and canceled another grant it hadn't yet received.

He said the Lab School would continue current work with public school educators, including workshops on writing and bilingual education and partnerships with local charters schools.

"We have a desire to work on issues in these communities," Kennedy said, "and we're not letting go of that idea."

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carla.rivera@latimes.com

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