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L.A. charter school aims to toss out students with fake addresses

Officials at Carpenter Community Charter, a top-notch elementary, think 120 children are enrolled fraudulently. They want to make room for students who live in the neighborhood.

March 12, 2013|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • Officials say Carpenter Community Charter is harboring scores of cheaters: families who have provided false addresses so their children can attend the esteemed Studio City school.
Officials say Carpenter Community Charter is harboring scores of cheaters:… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Carpenter Community Charter is among the best elementary schools in Los Angeles. Its students surpass standardized testing goals, its art and music programs are thriving and it enjoys robust support from parents and the community.

The campus also, officials say, is harboring scores of cheaters: families who have provided false addresses so their children can attend the esteemed Studio City school south of Ventura Boulevard.

Faced with the possibility of over-enrollment this fall — and armed with new verification powers — Carpenter is taking action. In the coming weeks, school officials will be knocking on the doors, giving parents another chance to prove they live where they claim to. If it is determined that they committed fraud, their children will be allowed to finish the year before they get the boot.

Carpenter is believed to be among the first L.A. Unified schools to launch such a wide-scale crackdown. Across Los Angeles, families scramble to secure housing within the boundaries of high-performing schools. And it is no secret that some game the system by using the addresses of relatives who live near sought-after campuses or doctoring documents like utility bills and rental agreements.

"There have always been rumors of an element of fraud each year" at Carpenter, Principal Joseph Martinez said.

But the problem became pressing when school officials learned the campus was projected to have more kindergarten applicants than it could accommodate. (Carpenter has classroom space for 168 kindergarten students, but is expected to have roughly 190 applicants by the time registration ends.)

That prompted administrators to find out exactly how rampant fraud was at the school, Martinez said.

Carpenter worked with a company to cross-reference documents provided by parents. The analysis — which kept parents' identities anonymous to avoid privacy issues — found that out of about 1,000 students, about 120 addresses could not be verified. Of those, about 30 to 50 could be students who began at Carpenter but them moved out of the area—a situation that is allowed under charter rules.

The school is now waiting for approval from L.A. Unified for the company to provide the families' names, which could occur as soon as this week. But the possibility of having to remove students who have attended Carpenter for years presents educators with a moral quandary.

Through no fault of their own, those students would have childhood friendships and relationships with teachers severed. There also may be an emotional toll on friends left behind.

But the school is just trying to do what is right, said parent Heather Tonkins, chairwoman of Carpenter's governing council. "If my kids happen to know kids that are in that situation, it's going to be devastating on all sides," she said.

Martinez said he cares deeply about the students who could be forced out, but that the school must fulfill its mission of educating neighborhood children.

"Their parents have put them in this predicament that will disrupt their education," he said. "My heart goes go out to those kids. But I have to put the higher priority on people who have not broken the law."

L.A. Unified last week approved the use of public records to verify addresses in a move that would help other schools root out the problem—before students are enrolled.

Even if the use of public records to verify addresses roots out cheaters, it still may not solve the enrollment problem.

As an "affiliated" L.A. Unified charter school, Carpenter is free from some restrictions that govern traditional schools. Under district rules, however, it still is bound to serve neighborhood students before accepting outside applicants. But state law says students who attend a charter have the right to stay even if their families move outside its boundaries. Martinez estimated that up to 50 students could fall into that category.

The governing council contends such students should not be allowed to remain. Some parents fear the rule could lead — and probably already has led — people to lease property in the neighborhood for a short time simply to get their children into the school, only to move out once they are enrolled.

When Alita Guillen and her husband moved to Los Angeles five years ago, they bought a home in the neighborhood specifically so their first daughter could attend Carpenter. Last year, the school received a score of 941 on the Academic Performance Index, surpassing the state's target of 800. It is a statistic real estate agents tout to potential clients.

Guillen said she has been happy with the school, but is disappointed that officials have seemingly looked the other way on the issue of fraudulent enrollment.

While her oldest has moved on to middle school, Guillen now has a son in fifth grade at Carpenter and a daughter who will enter kindergarten next year. Although kindergarten applicants with siblings at the school receive enrollment preference, Guillen's younger daughter will not, as her son will be leaving graduating from Carpenter this spring.

"It's horrible," she said. "And now because of people lying about where they live, my kid could get bumped."

Through the years, Guillen, like many other parents, has donated thousands of dollars to the school.

"We stayed in the neighborhood because we wanted to be in this school," she said. "Now all of that trouble may be for nothing."

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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