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Playa Vista vs. Special Needs Kids? 

Thursday, May 3 2012
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Westside Innovative School House, or WISH, had been quietly successful at its small charter grade school near LAX, where it mingles typical and high-achieving students with kids with autism, emotional disorders, speech impairments and disabling conditions. Students at the earnest little school scored above average in the national Great Schools database even though the school goes against the trend at some charters, that go after the cream of the crop.

But WISH was growing beyond its space, so in February, Los Angeles Unified School District formally agreed to negotiate to give the 220-student school empty classrooms in a new public school near the Ballona Wetlands, a move supported by Westside school board member Steve Zimmer.

The half-empty school, Central Regional Elementary School No. 22, serves Playa Vista, the master-planned village of imposing luxury apartments and condos. Such space-donating is allowed under Proposition 39, in which a separately run charter can "co-locate" in empty classrooms.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Parent volunteer Erika Higgins Ross: "Who wouldn't want WISH?"

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Soon after the school district made its offer, all hell broke loose.

Playa Vista parents claim they were scared by a female LAUSD staffer whose name they don't recall, who told them that WISH was "aggressively" seeking space at Playa Vista's school. Worried Playa Vista parents met at a hastily called session in the offices of developer Playa Capital — no other space was available — where the same LAUSD staffer warned parents that if they unexpectedly bore more children than projected, and if WISH moved into the space, mostly located on the school's upper floor, their own kids might have to attend school elsewhere.

On March 5, Emily Winfield, of Friends of Playa Vista School, contacted WISH Principal Shawna Draxton and set up a meeting March 7 to talk things over. But four hours later, with rumors apparently raging, Draxton says Playa Vista parent Julie Hoang posted an alert on the Friends of Playa Vista School Facebook page, titled "Please Do Not Take Away Playa Vista School Seats."

Hoang urged parents to tell Zimmer to reject the deal and to contact WISH to object.

But WISH isn't a top-heavy LAUSD school, with vice principals and aides. Principal Draxton spends much of her time in class — there are few back-office staff. The school was immediately overwhelmed with calls from hipster professionals in Playa Vista.

"Our office was flooded with all kinds of hate messages — as well as messages of support," Draxton says.

"We were getting 30, 40 phone calls a day saying, 'We don't want WISH to come to Playa Vista!' " says parent Erika Higgins Ross. "We asked them directly, 'Please stop harassing our school.' "

Winfield and Hoang then called and apologized to the principal for creating the uproar, and it was agreed they would all hold their originally planned meeting on March 7. That day, Draxton took them on a tour of WISH that went well. That night, Hoang emailed parents: "It was an amazing meeting ... We have found a creative solution ... ."

A local March 12 meeting drew many Playa Vista parents, people from WISH, Zimmer and LAUSD officials. The Playa Vista parents expressed fear that their kids might one day be bused to another school.

A few days later, LAUSD abruptly rescinded its offer to WISH.

WISH teachers and parents were dumbfounded. They discovered the news on the Facebook page for Friends of Playa Vista School, where they saw: "We are pleased to update everyone that WISH Charter School will NOT be co-locating to our school site this year. LAUSD made the official announcement yesterday."

The school district's treatment of WISH, a charter with a waiting list of 800 kids, is perhaps not entirely a surprise.

Zimmer is the most ardent union ally on the Board of Education. He is a WISH supporter but a frequent critic of charter schools — and many other reforms.

Higgins Ross says Zimmer said, "He'd like to see our inclusive model used throughout not only the charter world but the district ... He thought we could help the Playa Vista elementary school folks learn about inclusive education."

But days later, Zimmer cited an obscure rule from California's massive Education Code as the central reason for rescinding the offer to WISH. The widely followed rule requires all schools to provide a special stairway and exit for kindergarten through second-grade students. Ostensibly, this prevents the younger students from getting trampled during an emergency.

"I pushed very hard to try and find a way around that," Zimmer says, but LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy's office said the technicality could not be overcome.

"We were shocked and surprised," Draxton says. "We were really looking forward to working with Playa Vista and co-locating."

Zimmer says there wasn't room to place the youngest students from both Playa Vista and WISH on the school's first floor. But WISH officials had told Zimmer they were willing to place their older students at Playa Vista, while keeping the young ones in their space at LAX.

WISH co-founder Suzanne Madison Goldstein is blunt about why she believes Playa Vista residents pushed Zimmer and Deasy to reject WISH.

"We were too disabled, we were too racially diverse, too different and scary to make them comfortable," Goldstein alleges. WISH's student population is 43 percent white, 27 percent black, 22 percent Latino and 8 percent Asian.

Weeks later, something happened that underscored Goldstein's fears. Zimmer and Deasy agreed to hand the empty classrooms to Ocean Charter, a more upscale school with 70 percent white students. Playa Vista parents quickly agreed.

Hoang, who headed the initial campaign to stop WISH, did not respond to queries from the Weekly. Sybil Buchanan, a member of the Westchester–Playa Vista Neighborhood Council, wouldn't comment.

One Playa Vista parent, Alex Stein, says WISH has the wrong idea. "The school itself was a really good partner ... once you got past the shock of the initial offer." After meeting with WISH, "We were, like, 'Wait a minute, this could actually work.' "

But he says Playa Vista was warned by the unidentified LAUSD staffer "that it's very rare that once a charter co-locates, that they leave." LAUSD officials "scared the hell out of everybody."

Stein has long friendships with parents at Ocean Charter, and is convinced they will soon have their own school.

"I think from some perspectives it may be easy to characterize our group as exclusive and hostile toward other schools," Stein says. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

But WISH parents are troubled. Higgins Ross's daughter, not a special needs student, loves WISH. "When this whole thing started happening with Playa Vista, I was just shocked," Higgins Ross says. "I just thought to myself, 'Who wouldn't want WISH?' We are such a great group of parents, such a great group of kids."

Taylor Freitas contributed to this report.

Reach the writer at tibbyrothman@verizon.net

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