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L.A. County education officials OK Compton charter school

Celerity Educational Group's petition to open a campus was rejected by Compton's school board. But its successful appeal to L.A. County education officials means that a kindergarten through fifth-grade campus will operate in a neighborhood church.

May 26, 2011|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Members of the community organization Parent Revolution at then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's news conference at the Mary McLeod Bethune Middle School in Los Angeles.
Members of the community organization Parent Revolution at then-Gov.… (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles…)

Compton parents, stymied in their efforts to petition for sweeping changes at their low-performing elementary school, now have another choice: They can send their children to a newly approved charter campus instead.

Celerity Educational Group announced Wednesday that its petition to start a school in Compton, which was rejected by the city school board, has been approved on appeal by Los Angeles County education officials. The group, which operates four schools throughout the area, plans to open the Compton program this fall for 220 children in kindergarten through fifth grade at a neighborhood church.

Parents said they were jubilant to finally have another choice for their children besides McKinley Elementary School, where standardized test scores are rising but still rank in the bottom 10% of elementary schools statewide.

"This just shows when parents join together, we can win," said Raquel Benitez, a McKinley mother of four.

The announcement marks the latest twist in the long battle over McKinley. The school has become a closely watched test case for the state's new Parent Trigger law, which allows parents at low-performing schools to force staff and curriculum changes, school closure or conversion to a charter school. Charters are publicly financed, independently run schools.

Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles educational advocacy group, helped organize McKinley parents to submit the state's first Parent Trigger petition last December, asking that school management be turned over to Celerity. But the Compton school board rejected the petitions, saying that they were not properly drawn up. The group sued and a Los Angeles judge tentatively agreed, in part, with the board. Further arguments are scheduled for next month.

As the parent group faltered on the legal front, Celerity moved forward with a separate and ultimately successful charter petition. Celerity founder and chief Vielka McFarlane said the new school will be named Celerity Sirius — after the brightest star in the night sky.

"We want to be a beacon for the community," said McFarlane, an English-Spanish bilingual immigrant from Panama who was a teacher and administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District before opening her first charter school six years ago.

"You have a human right to have your kids aspire to something more than high school dropout," she told parents at a news conference at Church of the Redeemer, the site of the new school.

Among Celerity's three schools with standardized test score data, all rank in the top 10% of schools with similar populations — largely low-income Latino and African American students. Its highest-performing school, Celerity Troika, scored 932 on a scale of 1,000 last year and its lowest-performing school, Celerity Nascent, improved its test scores by more than 100 points in the last three years, reaching 782 last year.

McKinley, by contrast, scored 684 last year and ranks in the bottom 20% of schools with similar populations.

McFarlane credited Celerity student gains in part to a "labor-intensive" system of individualized instruction guided by data on student weakness and extra support through after-school programs and specialized staff.

Mass transfers from McKinley could reduce its student population by half, raising questions about the school's future. Citing budget cuts, the Compton school board considered closing McKinley this year but selected other schools instead.

Parents said they still hoped for a court victory affirming their petition to bring Celerity to McKinley. But if they fail, they said, they intend to be first in line to enroll their children in the charter.

"I'm excited because I know my daughter is going to get the education she needs and deserves," said Shemika Murphy, whose child is in second grade.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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