SILVER LAKE PARENTS UNITE IN THE FACE OF CHARTER SCHOOL "COLOCATION"
For Whom the School Bell Tolls, How School Choice is Dividing Public Education Allegiances
Micheltorena Street Elementary School parents had feared it might come to this. They had hoped their children's school would escape the eye of the charters. But it was not to be.
In January 2012 Micheltorena's Principal Susanna Furfari was notified by LAUSD that Citizens of the World Charter had requested Micheltorena for a colocation. In a few short months, the process by which a charter school takes up residence on a public school's campus would be stamped and finalized. According to Prop 39, Furfari, her students, and their parents had nothing to say in matter.
On May 1st Citizens of the World Charter will give official confirmation that it will be setting up another school, or "colocating," on Micheltorena's campus, occupying bungalows that the LAUSD considers unused.
Although the bungalows are used for after school programs, art classes, festivals and special education speech therapy space, according to the number of enrolled students at Micheltorena, the bungalows have been deemed empty and available for tenancy by any charter that requests them.
Under the legislation of the disputed Prop 39, the incipient, barely two-year-old Citizens of the World Charter has shrewdly requested Micheltorena (a Title 1 school) located in a very desirable part of the city, in an effort to expand their school in four different locations in Los Angeles and New York. One CWC parent stated that CWC must expand quickly in order to become a viable K-12 school in the next few years.
Charter schools receive large government start-up grants based on their enrollment numbers. Charters also have vigorous 501c3 (non-profit tax exempt status) arms for fundraising purposes. This is a very different model than a public school, which can often result in schools that look very different from each other on many levels.
Although charters are incorporated as non-profit organizations, they are generally managed and largely controlled by boards of directors that are comprised mostly of executives, hedge fund managers, real estate investors, and Hollywood producers, professionals who have little comprehension of critical educational issues and subtleties.
Micheltorena is a relatively small K-6 school of about 275 students, located in the diverse and trend-setting Silver Lake neighborhood. It is an inherently warm and pleasant school, replete with shiny floors, a broad cheerful playground, murals, and a new organic garden for both the students and the community. The children of Micheltorena spend their Wednesday recesses participating and actively gardening and sampling fresh vegetables.
The school is a friend to local businesses and neighbors who, in turn, have helped nudge it along. Some people in the community have made it a mission to see it fully blossomed into a school representative of its distinctive locale.
Academically, it is a school that is finally getting off the ground. Micheltorena's API score is rising, there are a growing number of involved parents, and there is a new dual language kindergarten program due to start in the fall.
The parents at Micheltorena used to chuckle that it was a "best kept secret," but now parents are scrambling to save their school from a colocation that they recognize as a sign of the current drift away from public education.
With the impending colocation looming, parents at Micheltorena are being asked why they are so distraught about sharing their campus with a charter school.
The parents have asserted that public education should remain guaranteed and inclusive, that this is an essential part of a democracy and one that should not be treated lightly.
"We have no say in what sort of fences they raise between us and them. I don't think it's right that charter students will eat a catered organic lunch, while our students receive reheated foods wrapped in plastic. What signs they place on the walls, what field trips they go on, that will be different than our kids' field trips. There is no standard, no explanation. It's chaotic because nobody really devised a plan. It just a sign of the gradual advance of corporate America into our public schools," states parent Jordan Crane.
The biggest and most immediate concern, however, is that the two schools will compete for enrollment. The parents, staff, and faculty know that if CWC enrolls children from the immediate Silver Lake neighborhood, Micheltorena's enrollment is likely to drop even lower, and the public school they care so much about could be subsumed in a gradual process of bait and switch.
The parents feel this is a distinct possibility, and one that has been precedented in other schools, such as Logan Elementary in Echo Park where a charter school has taken more and more rooms over the course of a few short years and overwhelmed the struggling public school with demands.
"Often, the process by which a group of people or organization is ostracized and phased out happens gradually so it is difficult to chart. Over time, people become used to an idea and before they know it, they have accepted something that is socially unethical, and probably unconstitutional," states Micheltorena parent David Parry who is a professor of communications at Temple University and served on the board at Dartmouth College's Institute for the Study of Applied and Professional Ethics.
Another Micheltorena parent, Catherine Borek, a dedicated high school English teacher and mother of two daughters states, "a school with a one-hundred-year history in the Silver Lake community could face closure within the next few years because some parents are lured away by new charter schools instead of looking to their local public school. Instead we should return to our neighborhood schools, to the inclusivity, democracy, and equality at the heart of these institutions, and support them as a community. All of our children will benefit when the community rallies around its public school."
The elephant in the room for Micheltorena's parents is the fact that charters must deny education to many, admit only a few, have the right to get unwanted children out of their school, are not required to have facilities for special needs children, and give preferential treatment to founding parents.
In fact, according to a 2010 UCLA study of charter schools in forty states, charter schools are in violation of civil rights laws along lines of race and language.
In the of face educational cutbacks, a growing number of parents are sending their kids to charter schools, private schools, or home schooling. This recent trend has left a hole in public education, leaving many public schools to languish without support, written off by society.
Micheltorena could be a victim of this trend, and its parents are disturbed by the tradeoff that they liken to the proverbial "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." They, and many others, feel that the charter drift will be devastating for the 100 year old American commitment to public education.
"Micheltorena is a strong school, with great teachers and an extraordinary principal. There are many parents who have attended the school themselves as children. We have made special education services a priority. We have music and art and a new library, all in the face of underfunding. What is wrong with us that we have to be diverted? Why can't we prosper and build our programs? Prop 39 needs to be repealed," states Sandra Chavez, an active force in Micheltorena's plight and former parent of Micheltorena, who is infuriated about what she feels is the lack of transparency of the charter movement.
Another parent points out one of the misconceptions concerning API scores, asserting that Micheltorena's API scores are misleading because of the 25% special needs students whose scores are averaged in with the rest of the students' scores. That fact, he says, may be influencing parents who might otherwise have chosen Micheltorena.
Another parent, Robert Rodriguez, a musician and real estate appraiser says, "You should really visit a school and see it in its true colors. I think a lot of parents go on numbers alone. We fell in love with Micheltorena, her principal, and the diversity here we think reflects strength and originality."
Many of the parents who are looking toward charters are enrolling very young children and may not be seasoned in education. They may not be fully comprehensive of the reports that show, on average, charters do no better than public school in achieving increased API scores.
Photos by Lulu Wilson, see the entire set.
On Feb 22nd 2012, in response to the outpouring of emails and phone calls from concerned parents and community members, the LAUSD held a town hall meeting for the parents of Micheltorena and CWC in the auditorium of the school. The timeline for their colocation was laid out for Micheltorena's parents and students. They were told that on April 1st the specifics of the offer would be made to CWC by LAUSD and by May 1st CWC would officially accept or reject the offer based on those specifications. Bennet Kayser, the district representative for Micheltorena, who has been supportive but who is also powerless in the decision, was present.
There was no board member representative or administration who offered to speak from CWC. Only one CWC parent made it clear that he was there from CWC and spoke at the meeting with Micheltorena's parents. CWC's failure to fully represent themselves at the meeting was a sign for Micheltorena's parents that CWC was not allowing for the all too real concerns of the community.
Since that evening, a dynamic and diverse group of parents meet two times a week to strategize and delegate, working together, pooling their ideas, and determining their best course of action.
The Micheltorena parent group has also visited with a representative from a similar group in Brooklyn named Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents for Our Public Schools (WAGPOPS) who are also facing a non-consensual colocation from CWC-NY. They are now trading tips and stories and each feel a deep relief that they have a friend in the other.
One parent, a professor of documentary film, is documenting the process by which a public school is colocated. Another academy award nominated filmmaker parent is actively organizing while readying his own new documentary film for the Tribeca Film Festival. Another parent, an illustrator, handles graphics and his wife, a pediatrician for Kaiser Permanente, and PTA co-president, has been an eloquent spokesperson for the cause. Still another parent has spearheaded the effort to collect more than 1200 signatures from the community.
Other parents and community supporters are actively researching the progression of charter schools into a formidable industry, the laws around Prop 39, and the procedures to which a charter school must purportedly adhere. The parents have, in various groups, attended a CWC board of directors meeting, attended and documented the CWC lottery process by which a child gains admission to a charter (CWC Hollywood had spots for 40 out of over 500 applicants), along with a new recruitment effort. Murals are being "wrapped," and a bigger, better open house is being planned and publicized for April 19th.
After the fateful Feb 22nd meeting, Micheltorena's parents wrote a motion for the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council in order to determine the community representatives' support for their opposition to the colocation.
The very public March 7th meeting was also held in the school's auditorium. This time CWC was sure to be present. Both sides were allocated a ten-minute time slot to state their points of views on the collocation.
The main focus of Micheltorena's argument is the hard-fought renaissance they are just beginning to experience, brought to the fore by the school's Principal Susanna Furfari's five years' hard work and commitment, dedicated teachers, active parents, and local community, and of course, the students themselves. They made it clear that what the school needs during this critical time is support from the public in order to continue practicing their civil and very American right to continue progress without the impediment of a private organization.
The Silver Lake Neighborhood Council voted in favor of Micheltorena's motion, with very enthusiastic voices of support. Three members of the SLNC abstained.
Nationwide, charters have come under the scrutiny of many educators and scholars, such as the aforementioned UCLA 2010 Choice without Equity report of charter schools in forty states, and Stanford's 2009 Center for Research on Educational Outcomes study. Yet charters remain an alluring and ever more ubiquitous option for parents in the face of mounting budget cuts to public schools.
"Make no mistake, charters schools are not public schools" said Robert D. Skeels, advocate for public education, journalist, and friend to Micheltorena's cause, in an impassioned statement, at the Feb 22nd meeting. The statement was met with thumping and cheers from the parents, students, and community friends who gathered that night when no rep from CWC, save a handful parents, cared to come and listen.
Parents are now exploring legal avenues with the possibility of bringing in a civil rights lawyer to file a restraining order on behalf of the Micheltorena community as a step to an injunction.