The first thing a visitor notices about Los Angeles International Charter High School is its campus, a leafy, hilltop aerie that looks like the private school it once was.
Then there are the students, preppy in white shirts and ties, their black sweater vests emblazoned with the school seal.
Appearances aren't necessarily deceiving: L.A. International does have an exceptional campus, perched on a bluff in the tiny community of Hermon, overlooking Highland Park. It formerly was the campus of the now-defunct Pacific Christian High School. And the students, most of them, aspire to succeed in school and go to college.
But that doesn't tell the whole story.
This is a school that two agencies tried to close, saying it was "demonstrably unlikely" to succeed, that there was "substantial doubt" about its future. Its Academic Performance Index, based on test scores, plummeted by 57 points this year to 574, well below that of a nearby public school, Franklin High in Highland Park, whose student body is outwardly similar -- almost entirely Latino -- but with a higher percentage of low- income students.
L.A. International is an example of a charter school that has struggled to get on its feet, a reflection of just how difficult it is to start a new school from scratch. It is also an example of the relatively lax oversight -- and scant support -- that charters have historically received from the Los Angeles Unified School District. Finally, its students' devotion demonstrates how even academically struggling charters can connect to pupils who don't fit in at large, traditional schools.
Tenth-grader Franklin Castellanos moved to L.A. International this year from Wilson High in El Sereno, where he was constantly in trouble. At L.A. International, "nobody's looking for problems; everybody's just chilling," he said. "Plus, the teachers help us too. They keep us out of trouble. . . . They're tougher, but they give us more help."
L.A. International opened five years ago, the dream of two teachers, Clifford Moseley and Vaughn Bernardez, who were colleagues at another charter. Moseley had grown up partly in Highland Park and partly in various foreign countries and had the idea of an international-themed school that would connect students to the world. The school received a four-year charter from Los Angeles Unified, which would later be renewed for one year.
But as is true of many charters, its early years were rocky. L.A. International started with about 80 students, which most charter experts would say is too few to be financially sustainable. The school lost its first home in the basement of an American Legion hall, meaning a last-minute switch to Sherman Oaks for its second year. That cost a fortune in bus transportation and caused many of its students to leave. By the time it found its current site, it was deeply in debt.
Fiscal problems were one reason L.A. Unified denied the school a new charter in March. The district also found that the school had an "unsound" educational program. L.A. International appealed to the County Office of Education, which approved its charter over the objections of staff and county schools Supt. Darline Robles.
Today, the school has a new principal, some new teachers and a new lease on life. Students and parents speak enthusiastically, saying it is safe, nurturing and academically challenging. Moseley says L.A. International is getting advice and support from Robles' office -- in contrast to its relationship with L.A. Unified.
"Instead of dodging bullets and getting hammered on, we have five years to really get our program up to par," he said. "Because we have some shortcomings, we've never denied that."