By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
A certain church rooftop off Wilshire Boulevard offers a fine view of the shuttered Ambassador Hotel, which the school district has been trying to turn into a high school or middle school for about 15 years. It took less than two years for Roger Lowenstein to create a middle school that opened this month in space rented from the church. That’s 15-plus years compared to less than two.
Here‘s another striking divergence. By the time the Ambassador school opens, L.A. Unified will have spent more than $200 million. Lowenstein’s charter school, which is also part of L.A. Unified, opened last week and cost well under $1 million in public funds. That‘s more than $200 million versus less than $1 million.
There’s more. Lowenstein sets class size at the Los Angeles Leadership Academy at 16 per teacher; last year, some of these same students sat in classes more than twice that size. And L.A. Unified has since made its classes larger. In addition, Lowenstein and his staff have a good chance of getting to know every student, because the total enrollment is about 130. Contrast that with LAUSD middle-school enrollments of 2,000 to 4,000 students.
At her son‘s former middle school, teachers had to focus on crowd control, said parent Ketherine Campos, speaking in Spanish. At the academy, “The people in charge can give more attention to the students.”
This comparison is no blanket endorsement of charter schools. Make no mistake: Charter schools can be hijacked by profiteers, right-wing religious zealots and elitists -- not to mention incompetents who waste tax dollars, or crooks who try to steal them. And though charter schools are intended to be groundbreaking -- even revolutionary -- sometimes they are no different than the regular public school around the corner; sometimes they are worse.
But charter schools also can bring a whirlwind like the 59-year-old Lowenstein, a successful attorney, into the business of educating children, and in L.A. Unified, they could also ease the desperate shortage of classrooms. As never before, the school district is encouraging more charter schools, even though some might be embarrassing failures. If the gamble works, thousands of children will get classroom space and maybe even superior schools.
Charter schools are allowed to ignore parts of the education code and adopt their own “charter,” which must be approved by the local school district or by another sponsoring government agency.
One key rule cast aside is the Field Act, the law that requires new schools to adhere to the strictest earthquake-safety and other building codes. The Field Act, in effect, prevents a new, traditional school from opening in just about anything other than a new, custom-built structure. Ironically, it would be illegal to move children from an overcrowded, crumbling 50-year-old school into a spacious, well-constructed, 15-year-old building that was not built as a school and does not conform to Field Act standards.
As a charter operator, Lowenstein can use any space, as long as it conforms to city and county health, safety and building codes. That’s a helpful hedge in a school system trying heroically to add classroom space for 77,000 students by 2006. If the district succeeds -- a big if -- every high school would still operate year-round. And even then, there wouldn‘t be enough seats if efforts to improve the school district actually succeed. Currently, about 45 percent of district students never make it to high school graduation. If they suddenly decided to stick around, there’d be no room for them.
Which makes Lowenstein‘s lease with the Immanuel Presbyterian Church especially symbiotic. The charter school gets a home (and L.A. Unified gets seats) and the church gets rent money. In this case, a social-justice charter school also aligns with the mission of the church, but no one is pushing any religion. This nonsectarian marriage of church and state also is unfolding elsewhere: Camino Nuevo Charter School uses the old Wilshire Temple, and the View Park Preparatory Accelerated Charter School runs out of the Angeles Mesa Presbyterian Church in the Crenshaw District.
Lowenstein’s edifice, a 1920s church classroomactivity building, has survived every earthquake to date. That‘s not as reassuring as Field Act compliance, but some 300 families streamed in to apply for about 140 spots. And 200 teachers competed for eight faculty positions. In a notable turnabout, Lowenstein and academic-program director Susanne Coie a raided high-caliber teachers from another school system. Usually, it works the other way, with L.A. Unified spending thousands of dollars to train badly needed teachers, only to lose them to school districts with better working conditions. The academy’s experienced, multilingual staff includes a Yale grad and an alumna of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Parts of this unusual setting are an architectural gem, including the assembly hall with its pillar-supported balcony and hand-painted decorative ceiling. The lack of schoolwide air conditioning has been sorely felt, but the campus is Internet-ready and has a new fire-alarm system. There‘s also an indoor gym, a rooftop basketball court, a handball court, a racquetball court, and a serviceable kitchen -- to which Lowenstein added a walk-in fridge, an industrial dishwasher and other upgrades totaling $35,000.
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