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Green Dot to close Justice Charter High School

Administrators say low enrollment at the L.A. school caused financial pressures. Students protest.

March 22, 2010|By Howard Blume

Green Dot Public Schools, a leading charter school operator, is shutting down a campus because of low enrollment, financial pressures and subpar performance, officials confirmed Monday.

The action prompted a daylong student protest Monday at Animo Justice Charter High School, south of downtown Los Angeles.

The closure marks a first for locally based and nationally recognized Green Dot, which has 19 area campuses and one in New York City.

The nonprofit Green Dot opened five independently run, publicly funded charters, including Animo Justice, four years ago, near long-struggling Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles.

Green Dot founder Steve Barr first sought to take over Jefferson itself in the wake of racially tinged brawls in 2005.

Rebuffed by the Los Angeles Unified School District, he opted to compete for Jefferson students.

Jefferson's enrollment has stabilized, and its smaller, more manageable enrollment is contributing to improved student achievement.

Green Dot later became the first outside organization to run a local traditional high school with its July 2008 takeover of Locke High near Watts.

Animo Justice senior class president Eduardo Campos, 17, credits the school for his ambition to graduate and go to college and also for developing student leadership skills.

Students displayed their activist initiative when some 400 -- nearly the entire school -- started a sit-in at 8:45 a.m. in the hallways. Later they took their protest outside the school to 27th Street, which police closed to traffic.

"We built the school from scratch," Campos said.

"We chose the name of the school and the colors. And now all of that is being taken away."

The school will close at the end of the academic year.

The five Green Dot charters have registered higher test scores than Jefferson, but now they face enrollment competition from other charter schools as well as from a new district high school nearby. And another L.A. Unified high school is under construction.

Green Dot's financial model relies on philanthropic subsidies until it can build enrollment, one grade at a time, to 560 students. Animo Justice never quite hit its annual enrollment targets, accumulating a $1 million deficit, said chief executive Marco Petruzzi.

Shrinking state funding also tightened the financial problems.

Another Green Dot school, Film & Theatre Arts, enrolls only 160 students because it has a different management structure, so it, too, has proved a financial drain. It could eventually be shut down as well.

Closing Animo Justice makes sense because it has not equaled other Green Dot schools in performance and enrollment, Petruzzi said.

Its students and teachers can be accommodated at other Green Dot campuses, he added. And the Animo Justice space would be used to start a new middle school.

Animo Justice has had three principals and three sites, one of which required busing neighborhood students seven miles.

Teachers thought the school had turned a corner with the move into its permanent location, a converted industrial property along a commercial stretch of Long Beach Avenue.

"We had no idea that closing was even a possibility, and then we received the information on Friday morning," said Judy Riemenschneider, who teaches chemistry and environmental science. The ultimatum is at odds with Green Dot's principles, which call for teacher input into critical decisions, she said.

Parent Cristal Divas expressed disappointment over the loss of a school that has worked well for her 10th grade son.

"I liked the quality of the teachers," she said. "It was like a private school. He never had so much attention before. Now it will be like starting over."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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