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L.A. charter schools get a chance to grow, but how big?

Groups can only handle a fraction of the 251 L.A. Unified schools that will be up for bidding.

September 02, 2009|Howard Blume

A groundbreaking plan to open 51 new Los Angeles schools and 200 existing ones to possible outside control has Randy Palisoc feeling as if salvation is just steps away. A new $54-million campus he covets is rising a block from where his award-winning charter school operates in a rented church.

Palisoc is among many with big dreams since the Los Angeles Board of Education approved its landmark school control resolution last week. The management of about a fourth of all district schools could be up for grabs.

As a result, leading charter school operators anticipate accelerated growth for their organizations and better facilities for some current schools. An 11-school nonprofit group controlled by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is eyeing a new high school south of downtown and may bid for more existing campuses. Momentum is building for internal district proposals.

And even the powerful teachers union, which vigorously opposed the plan, is preparing to take part.

School board member Yolie Flores Aguilar, who brought the initiative forward, applauds the results, including the union's openness to playing a role. "This is precisely the kind of shift that my resolution intended to cause," she said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, with 688,000 students, has labored for years to lift student achievement, and the school control plan could become one of the country's most sweeping education experiments. That's because the district has so many new schools -- a product of the largest school construction program nationwide -- as well as so many struggling older ones. And within its borders are some of the largest and most sophisticated charter school companies anywhere.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently managed; they are free of some regulations that govern traditional schools. They also are not required to be unionized.

Under the L.A. Unified plan, charter groups and other outside operators will be able to bid to run the new campuses and about 200 of the district's poorest-performing schools.

The board allowed its staff 60 days to develop the bidding process, and Supt. Ramon C. Cortines is to make recommendations for individual schools by mid-January. The time frame is short because 21 new campuses will open next year.

The new schools perfectly fit the playbook of charter operator Judy Burton, who heads the 16-campus Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools. Her board requires her to open new schools each year. "Our vision is to be in the communities that need help the most," Burton said last week. "We will submit proposals." But Flores Aguilar insists that the 200 low-achieving schools also must be addressed with urgency. These schools, which include elementary and secondary campuses, serve almost exclusively low-income minority students, many with limited English skills. They are spread across the district but are concentrated primarily in higher poverty areas in southern and eastern Los Angeles and the northeast San Fernando Valley.

Palisoc, who runs the 400-student Synergy Academies, said his goal is to help other lower-performing schools match the success of his charter, which needs more space to meet its own goals for growth. For now, at the end of each day, he must pack up books and equipment to make way for Bible studies in the room that doubles as his office and the school's computer lab. And every Friday, his teachers must dismantle their classrooms too.

"Our school is an in-spite-of school," Palisoc said. "Schools should be successful because of the system, not in spite of it."

Those best-positioned to bid for more schools are the large charter management organizations.

But charter operators say their groups lack the capacity to handle anything close to 200 existing schools.

The only such effort so far was the 2008 takeover of Locke High in South Los Angeles by Green Dot Public Schools. Green Dot, for the first time, had to run a neighborhood school that included students with a wide array of disabilities as well as juvenile offenders and foster children, an endeavor that stretched the organization.

The leader of another charter group, ICEF Public Schools, said he could undertake four to seven school turnarounds over the next decade. In addition, ICEF chief executive Michael Piscal said he plans to use the school control resolution as a tool to go after the district's $233-million downtown arts high school, which will open this month under district management and is not available for outside operators.

Piscal plans first to bid for new schools that will feed students into the arts high school. He'll also bid for low-performing elementary and middle schools in the area. Rather than pursuing a hostile takeover, he hopes to persuade their faculties to join his organization, arguing that it's best equipped to develop talent for the arts campus.

With some of these schools operating under his aegis, Piscal said, he could press a claim for the spectacular new facility if its current management foundered.

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