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.
“That’s the most revolutionary act of all, saying you want to feed the kids,” said Lowenstein. He‘s not joking. You’d be hard-pressed to find cooking facilities at regular L.A. schools, which rely on questionable provisions from the school district‘s central kitchen. Lowenstein offers a basic salad bar every day and a hot entree, along with fresh fruit.
Some currently unused portions of this building remain dirty or in disrepair, but the classrooms are scrubbed, painted and well furnished through donations — such as oak-and-glass bookcases from a law firm that was disposing of its legal library and a marble-and-glass conference table from Len Jacoby, a founder of Jacoby & Meyers. The school’s supply cabinet bulges with donated script paper, from Lowenstein‘s Hollywood connections.
The sources of the contributions make sense given Lowenstein’s past as a renowned East Coast criminal-defense attorney, private litigator and law-school professor, and his later incarnation as scriptwriter for L.A. Law and other legal-themed shows.
Lowenstein has only an emergency teaching credential and no administrative credential — he‘d be laughed out the door if he applied for principal at a traditional school. He explains that his partner, Coie, is the educator, and he’s the hustler. So far, he‘s hustled $250,000 of his own money into the school, some of which he hopes will be only a loan. But he was determined not to let bureaucratic delays doom his enterprise.
In that he has the support of Grace Arnold, a former charter-school principal who took over the LAUSD charter-schools unit nearly a year ago. In that time, the school board has approved 12 charter schools; 28 other applications are in the pipeline, a sharp departure for a school system long regarded as anti-charter.
“The biggest difference is that this current school board views charter schools as an asset,” said Arnold, “as a learning laboratory, where education ideas can be evaluated, not as an imposition or as something outside the district.”
The Leadership Academy’s theme was immediately apparent on opening day. Every staff member met with a cadre of 11 students, who will remain under this staffer‘s guidance while at the school. The first task was to establish school rules.
“The idea is to give students responsibility for the community we will be creating,” said program director Coie, 32, who earned a master’s at UC Berkeley in public policy. Her background also includes a fellowship studying schools set up by the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico.
The students took their charge seriously, suggesting rules such as: “No violence or abusiveness — either physical or verbal” and “Come to class on time and prepared.”
Later that day, all students gathered in the assembly hall to continue the process. The heat was stifling, and student reps couldn‘t be heard because of their timidity and the lack of amplification. In all, it was a glorious failure, one born of high aspiration.
“I was pretty amazed at the level of concentration,” said Lowenstein later, noting that students had remained quiet and attentive. “We decided not to repeat a large meeting like that. We’re continuing to work in the individual groups.
”Little by little, in the smaller groups, the advisories, the kids are beginning to talk and realize they are part of a process. Many of them are extremely resistant to participatory democracy.“ Ultimately, he expects students to involve themselves directly in community betterment while at the school.
By design, the student body closely mirrors the school district as a whole. Lowenstein reserved some seats for students from the district‘s lowest-performing schools. Overall, he’s got precious few high achievers and many teenagers reading at second-grade level.
Lowenstein tried to draw out his 11-member group by asking who had ever been in trouble. ”Almost every hand went up,“ he recalled. He confessed to them that he‘d been suspended from school six times: progressing from smoking to breaking a kid’s shop project to kicking a teacher to stealing a car. ”I was just an angry kid acting out,“ he explained. ”And I talked about how important it is to find a different way.“
Lowenstein says that creating a school is the hardest thing he‘s ever done. And like a growing child, the school is a work in progress. ”If you ask me how this is going to be a school for social justice, I can tell you some of the things we will do, but I can’t tell you there is a book we will all read from. But if you can‘t read, write and count, all the great political philosophy in the world doesn’t mean shit. And leadership for its own sake doesn‘t do very much either. I want these students to be leaders to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, to make the world a better place.“
The school district would probably settle for the pragmatic benefit of more seats for the masses, but a better world could work out okay, too.