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L.A. Unified moves to revoke charter at Valley high school

The district has faulted Birmingham Community Charter High School for allegedly mishandling student expulsions and services to disabled students. School officials say they're aware of no major problems.

April 25, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Ninth-graders Paola Moreno and Jovany Contreras check class schedules at Birmingham Community Charter High School in this 2009 photo.
Ninth-graders Paola Moreno and Jovany Contreras check class schedules… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles school district officials are moving to retake control of Birmingham Community Charter High School, citing numerous alleged problems at the campus that broke away from the system three years ago.

L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy has faulted the leaders of the Lake Balboa campus for allegedly mishandling student expulsions and services to disabled students and for failing to respond adequately to allegations of racial discrimination.

School officials said they are looking into the allegations, but are aware of no major problems. Still, Birmingham's board of directors voted last week not to renew the contract of founding Chief Executive Marsha Coates in what two board members characterized as an unrelated action.

Deasy outlined the allegations in an April 13 letter to the school. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote May 1 on whether to take the first step to revoke Birmingham's charter. Officials could not recall a similar action against a school that became an independent charter.

Not mentioned in the letter, but also a cause for concern, is a recent police investigation into a possible theft of school funds. No arrests have been made.

The Los Angeles Unified School District "has received numerous complaints and reports" about Birmingham, Deasy wrote.

The campus, which left district control in 2009, was part of an exodus of large, traditional high schools that served a substantial number of middle-class families. Under the charter law, campuses can break away from L.A. Unified and form independent boards with control over budgets, curriculum and hiring.

Critics, however, say such departures drained the nation's second-largest school system of students, money, teaching jobs and, frequently, prestige.

Granada Hills High School paved the way in the San Fernando Valley in 2003, joining Palisades High. Last year, El Camino Real in Woodland Hills followed suit.

Birmingham, which serves the economically mixed Van Nuys area, is a microcosm of the district at large: About 78% of students are Latino, 9% are black and 8% are white.

The school, which has about 2,700 students, had a rocky beginning. The staff at the Daniel Pearl journalism magnet program on the campus voted against joining the charter, part of a sometimes bitter internal struggle over Birmingham's future.

The higher-achieving magnet is no longer included in Birmingham's overall test scores, which may have contributed to a first-year decline in the school's results. Birmingham ranked in the bottom 20% of schools statewide and the bottom 40% of similar campuses.

Last year, however, scores jumped an unusually large 43 points on the state's Academic Performance Index; the overall school score was 695, which is still below the state's goal of 800, as are most district high schools.

Deasy's letter contains limited detail but alludes to "violations of student discipline procedures and due process," particularly regarding expulsions.

L.A. Unified also takes issue with the school's admission procedures and campus supervision. The federal Office for Civil Rights is investigating allegations of discrimination in the basketball program.

An internal inquiry found no wrongdoing but resulted in improved procedures for handling complaints, said Birmingham Board of Directors Chairman Larry Schapiro.

Coates and board members praised the school's academic gains, for which they credited an improved teaching staff. About one in five teachers has been replaced. Supporters have described the campus as cleaner and more orderly.

"I think we're a lot better off than in L.A. Unified," said athletic director Rick Prizant.

"We're willing and ready to work with the school district," said Coates. "We feel like we've got a great school and we want to resolve this."

She added that she also respected her board's choice to hire a new top administrator.

"It was a mutual decision," said Coates, who was also principal before the school became a charter. "It's really OK, because I need to look for something that has less stress."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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