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2 charter schools allowed some families to bypass lotteries

L.A. Unified will weigh a ban on preferences like those at Larchmont and Los Feliz, which admitted some students in return for special services or volunteering by parents.

December 13, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • The Board of Education on Tuesday will consider a ban on preferences in admissions to charter schools.
The Board of Education on Tuesday will consider a ban on preferences in admissions… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

Two popular Los Angeles charter schools have allowed some families to bypass a lottery for admission in exchange for providing special services or a substantial volunteer commitment.

The practices of Larchmont Charter School and Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts have raised concerns that such preference policies, if allowed, could open the door to well-connected friends or wealthier families who promise to contribute. In effect, critics say, charters could end up functioning more like private schools than campuses almost entirely supported with tax dollars.

Neither school concealed its enrollment procedures and they were tolerated by the charter school office of the L.A. Unified School District, but exposure of the practices is prompting the Board of Education on Tuesday to consider a ban on such preferences.

Under state law, independently run charter schools are open equally to students without regard to family resources. Lotteries are held when applications exceed classroom space.

"It's pretty obvious if you're going to have a lottery, you have to make it equal for all the families that are applying," said Bennett Kayser, a frequent charter critic who joined the school board this year. "There shouldn't be end runs around the process."

Larchmont ended the practice after one year and Los Feliz appears likely to follow suit; the issue was detailed in an L.A. Weekly article in October.

The controversy involves a twist on the concept of founding parents. Under state law, a charter's founding parents are guaranteed admission. Few contest this allowance; parents who spend substantial time and resources to begin a school should not then be excluded by the luck of the enrollment lottery, the thinking goes.

"Many of California's most successful charters exist today because of that parent support," said Jed Wallace, chief executive of the California Charter Schools Assn. "Yet we believe that extending those benefits post-opening is ill-advised and inappropriate."

Critics of charters, which must be open to all regardless of family income, academic achievement or disability, have long accused these schools of finding subtle ways of limiting their numbers of students who are difficult to educate. Charter advocates have contested these claims.

Los Feliz Charter, which quickly became a destination for middle-class families via word of mouth, is unlike the neighborhood school, Los Feliz Elementary, in many ways. Los Feliz Elementary is composed entirely of low-income families; 44% of students are listed as English learners. Los Feliz Charter has 28% low-income students and 6.5% English learners, amid ongoing recruiting efforts to diversify. (Larchmont's demographics are similar, its recruiting has boosted low-income families to 42%.)

Larchmont and Los Feliz charters plan to continue one form of weighted preference that applies to their lottery, which goes to low-income families, an attempt to make their schools more representative of the surrounding community.

At Los Feliz, the preference given to handpicked parents dates to the school's opening in 2006. The school was hard-pressed financially; the staff was minimal. The governing board responded with the concept of "community participants," later renamed "founding parents."

"The concept was to have sweat-equity buy-in to the school to fill certain roles," said Dr. Sujal Mandavia, a physician and one of 14 original founding families.

Thirteen families have since been accepted as founding parents. A number of founders and their extended families have become substantial financial supporters as well, consistently donating thousands of dollars annually.

After hearing about the opportunity from a friend, Ben and Stephanie Ragle offered their expertise as architects.

"It felt almost like a job interview," Ben Ragle said of an enrollment process that included submitting an essay.

The Ragles proved invaluable as the school located and prepared its current home in Glassell Park, Principal Karin Newlin said.

Larchmont, which opened in 2005, began a preference program leading into the current school year in hopes of replacing activist parents whose children were moving on to other schools. Last year, the school decided to make founding parent opportunities available on a first-come, first-served basis.

After receiving an email alert, about 30 parents dashed to campus. The first 12 got into a special drawing to fill 10% of the school's available spaces. Those who didn't get a spot were placed at the top of the waiting list.

For the upcoming year, interest quickly swelled past manageable proportions, Executive Director Brian Johnson said. No more founding parents will be added this year or in the future, he said.

At least one local charter, New West Charter Middle School, intends to continue an admissions preference for parents who take on a substantial volunteer commitment in the year prior to enrollment. New West, located in West Los Angeles, is not under the jurisdiction of L.A. Unified, although it has long sought classroom space from the school district.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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