On a weekday evening in early spring, about 40 parents crammed into a classroom at Larchmont Charter elementary school. They perched on kindergarten chairs, or sat on the floor, or stood in the hallway, craning their necks.
Larchmont is one of the most desirable schools in Los Angeles. It's also nearly impossible to get into. At that moment, 500 kids were on the waiting list. Admission is by lottery, so it comes down to luck.
Unless you can find a way around the lottery.
That's why these parents came to Larchmont. They were looking for a way to cut to the front of the line.
School officials explained how it would work. Parents who agreed up front to make an extraordinary volunteer commitment to the school could get admissions priority. They would be called "founding parents."
They would be asked not only for their time but also for money. The school got public funding, but that wasn't enough to cover costs. The "funding gap" worked out to $2,500 per child, officials said. That was the school's not-so-subtle way of conveying the expected contribution. Larchmont is a public school, but it was behaving more like a private academy.
A public school offers a free education to every child in the community — that's what makes it public. A private school charges tuition and accepts students through a competitive selection process. Larchmont was bridging public and private by exploiting a loophole. Under federal guidelines, charter schools can give admissions priority to "founding parents." That's why these parents were being asked to "found" a school that had opened in 2004.
School officials did warn the parents that Larchmont couldn't guarantee admission to their children. But — wink, wink — no children of founding parents had ever been rejected.
Los Angeles is leading the nation in establishing charter schools. The L.A. Unified School District is ultimately responsible for policing them to make sure they live up to the promise of equal access. The Weekly found that the district is aware of the founding-parent loophole but has done little to close it.
When the state Legislature authorized charter schools in the early 1990s, skeptics feared they would become refuges for highly motivated and affluent parents. Instead of lifting up all kids, they would become private schools, paid for with public money. The safeguard intended to prevent that from happening is the lottery.
That's what makes it so troubling that schools would rig the lottery to favor preferred parents.
"Manipulating the meaning of who's a founding parent directly contradicts the Legislature's attempt to ensure that charters do not become exclusionary places," says Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor and the editor of Inside Charter Schools. "They may be called into court to defend that."
The kindergarten admissions process in Los Angeles is permeated with anxiety. Parents want the best possible environment for their children, and the best possible head start on the road to college. For some, that might be the local public school. But for many — and especially for many in L.A. Unified — the best option might lie elsewhere.
Parents with means have a couple of choices.
One is to move to a neighborhood with better schools, understanding that the school's quality will figure in the purchase price of the house.
The other is to pony up $20,000 or more for tuition to private school.
But good luck getting in. The private school system is as cutthroat as any outside of Manhattan. The admissions process is so mysterious that "education consultants" can charge thousands of dollars to help parents navigate it.
Adding another layer of complexity are magnet schools and, more recently, charters — which are independently run public schools.
Anyone who's seen the documentary Waiting for Superman will be familiar with the admissions process at a charter school. By law, if a school has more applicants than spaces, it must hold a public lottery. But often there is a side door.
"The side door is that you start volunteering at the school a couple years before your kid is ready to go," says Christina Simon, author of Beyond the Brochure, a book about the L.A. private school admissions process. "They donate money. They get on the board. And the wheels are greased for their kids to go there."
All applicants must participate in the lottery. But federal guidelines allow a handful of lottery "preferences," which serve as a sort of VIP entrance. One is for siblings. If an older sibling is already enrolled, the younger child can get in automatically. Another preference is for children of school staff. Yet another is for founding parents.
The preference exists so that parents who go to the trouble of creating a charter school can be assured that their kids will be able to attend. The only restriction is an unwritten rule limiting founders to 10 percent of the school's total enrollment.
Typically, the founding-parents rule applies only to schools just starting up. But nowhere is the term defined. Nothing prevents a school from adding new founding parents after the school is open. This loophole allows schools to select parents much the way a private school would.
A broad coalition of education reformers, politicians and business leaders has embraced charters as the solution to the decay of urban school systems. But the debate over whether charters are actually better than traditional public schools obscures a more fundamental debate: Are they, in fact, public schools?
"It's meant to be a public school," says Gary K. Hart, the retired state senator who authored California's charter school law. "Public schools are open to everyone. Having a bunch of special categories for preference to get into a charter school is not in keeping with the spirit of the law."
March is always a stressful time at Fountain Day preschool in West Hollywood. Fountain Day is one of the nicer preschools in the area, and its kids go on to top elementary schools, such as Campbell Hall, Wonderland and Larchmont Charter. Last spring, private elementary schools sent out their acceptance letters on March 25, and the weeks leading up to the big day were filled with anxiety.
"I have more panicked parents now than I've ever had," Andrew Rakos, the preschool's admissions director, told the Weekly. "It's so much more complicated and convoluted than parents have ever imagined. Doctors, lawyers, executives, actors and actresses — it leaves them all on their knees."
At the pickup hour, a group of parents compared notes on their options for the fall. Some were applying to private schools. Some were planning to move to better districts. And some were looking at charters.
Margaret Jarry was looking for a place for her son, Henry.
"I'm trying to bribe an old boyfriend to get into a charter school," she told the Weekly. What did she mean by "bribe"?
"Bribe," she said.
Jarry had applied to Larchmont Charter. The lottery had taken place a couple weeks before. A friend made up a "vision board" — a collage of positive images that was supposed to help manifest her hopes for her son. But it didn't work. She drew a high number and was told not to expect to get an offer.
So she called her ex. His wife had helped found the school. Maybe he could get Henry in.
"I can do nothing," he told her.
He said they could lose their charter if they played favorites with admissions. The only thing he could suggest was that she look into becoming a founding parent. It wouldn't help for kindergarten, he said, but maybe Henry could get in for first or second grade.
"You get involved now, then in a couple years your priority goes up," Jarry recalled. "That, to me, was the weirdest concept I've ever heard of."
She decided not to follow up on it. Several months later, she moved to Beverly Hills.
The parents who attended the Larchmont orientation in March were thinking farther ahead. Their kids were as young as 2 years old — three years away from kindergarten — but they were eager to start volunteering.
Dolores Patton, the principal, did most of the talking. She explained the school's "constructivist" philosophy. She mentioned the chef-made lunches. When asked, she disclosed the school's test scores. (Last year, the school posted an elite-level API score of 931, on a scale of 1,000.)
She also told Larchmont's story: A group of parents had teamed up to create a better option for their kids. Some mortgaged their homes to raise money. On opening day, one parent ran out to buy toilet paper.
"Those founding parents had a kind of energy that we are looking to find in a new generation of founding parents," Patton explained.
At the end of the presentation, most of the parents were ready to sign up. But that's where it got difficult.
The school couldn't offer founding-parent slots to everyone who wanted them, because they're limited to 10 percent of each class. They also couldn't do a separate lottery among founding parents. State law allows one — and only one — lottery per year.
So how could they choose?
The answer is that they would not choose. Acceptance would be on a "first come, first served" basis. On a random morning in May, the school would send out an email announcing that it was accepting applications.
The first 12 parents through the door would become founding parents.
Hands immediately shot up. What if the email went to the spam filter? Could the school send a test email first? Could they give their husband's email as a backup?
They started gaming out their chances. Those who lived close by had an edge.
"Best case, I think I could get there in 10 minutes," said Joy Blaser, the mother of a 3-year-old girl. Those who lived farther away imagined blowing through red lights in a frantic drive across town.
"I think it's the craziest thing I've ever heard," Shana Stein said. "It seems like it's encouraging high-speed accidents."
Stein had heard about the school through a friend.
"Basically, almost our only chance of getting in is to be a founding parent," she said. "If you're a Caucasian family that is not on free lunch, you need to be either a founding parent or a teacher."
Her friend Bridget Wiley, an executive at CBS, also was interested in signing up. But she was puzzled by the "first come, first served" process.
"You could have people sleeping in tents," she said.
School officials figured this was the only way to ensure that parents didn't get in on the basis of friendships, or professional qualifications or the amount of money they could contribute.
"We weren't interested in cherry-picking," said Brian Johnson, the school's executive director. "We wanted to do something more equitable and self-selected."
And so, unintentionally, Larchmont reduced the admissions process to its most primal level: It would come down to a race.
Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts decided to do things differently. It would cherry-pick.
The school grew out of a Mommy & Me group in Los Feliz. The parents wanted a school that would use music, dance, theater and visual arts to teach the fundamentals.
Because of its curriculum, Los Feliz attracted a following in the entertainment community. Every year, the school receives hundreds more applicants than it has spots available.
Each year, the school has brought in new founding parents. Parents submit applications. They list their professional qualifications and pledge to apply those skills in service to the school. The school requires them to commit 200 hours of volunteer effort — the equivalent of five weeks of full-time work. Most single moms or dual-income families would have a hard time making that commitment.
The school decides who gets in on the basis of what skills it needs. Last year, when the school was moving, it needed architects. This year, it needs fundraisers. The school found four new founders for this year's kindergarten class.
"One has done a lot of fundraising for the Philharmonic," says Karin Newlin, the principal. "Another has done fundraising for two schools. We hope they might lead us in some campaigns."
The person who makes the decisions is David Landau, a producer of TV commercials and a Los Feliz parent. Landau's son was admitted to the school just before it became popular. He feels lucky to have gotten in when he did.
"You want the best for your kid," he says. "They're not going to college maybe if they don't get into the place where you think they're going to thrive."
As the head of the founding-parent screening committee, he has the difficult task of choosing a handful of parents from a pool of well-qualified applicants.
"What I enjoy is connecting with families who are like-minded and who are committed," he says. "The hard part is telling people that unfortunately they didn't make it in."
Karen Barranco of Highland Park was accepted in 2010. She works in branding and identity design. The school needed someone with her skills because the board is planning to change the school's name.
Barranco filled out a founding-parent application, wrote a personal essay and went through a series of interviews.
"I even met someone for coffee and showed them my portfolio," she says. "I felt like I was applying for a job. It's what you have to do these days."
Barranco also applied at a few private schools, hoping she could get financial aid. But that seemed unlikely, so she was pinning her hopes on Los Feliz. She also was counting on superstition.
"I'm from New Orleans," she says. "We do voodoo."
Landau called with the good news.
"I was thrilled," she says. "I was really, really happy. I'm not good at lotteries."
Heather Hope-Allison, a marketing professional from Eagle Rock, was impressed by the school when she toured last year.
"You could see how happy the children looked, and how cool the parents looked," she says.
She applied to be a founding parent and offered to help produce fundraisers. There was an interview, and then an agonizing wait.
"I was getting so anxious. I kept emailing them, to the point where my husband was, like, 'Stop,' " she says. "I cried when we got in. I seriously bawled. I think it was partly the stress, because I'd heard about people not getting into places."
One of her first jobs was to help run the lottery. There were more than 500 applicants for 25 spots. Her name was called in the 140s, she says. Without the founding-parent preference, her child wouldn't have gotten in.
L.A.'s charter school movement is akin to an educational Wild West. The old rules have been thrown out, and charters have been given broad freedom to try out new ideas. But in that environment, someone has to be sheriff.
That someone is L.A. Unified. It should be policing charter schools. Instead, it has focused on facilitating them. The issue of founding parents has come to the district's attention before. But the charter school division has failed to establish a policy, much less enforce it.
The division is run by Jose Cole-Gutierrez. He came to L.A. Unified from the California Charter Schools Association, where he lobbied the district on behalf of local charter schools. He has been accused of being too accommodating toward the district's charter schools on a range of issues.
"We should not have somebody running the charter school division who has a connection with the Charter Schools Association," says Sonja Luchini, who argues that charters don't do enough for special-needs students like her son. "It's the fox watching the henhouse."
L.A. Unified does not keep track of who gets admitted through lottery preferences. The district does not even know how many schools give out founding-parent preferences, or how those schools define the term.
So L.A. Weekly conducted its own review, looking at the founding documents for each of the district's 200 charter schools. The analysis showed one-third of them — 65 schools — grant a preference in their charters to founding families or some variant of the term, such as founding board members or developers. Large "charter management" organizations, like Green Dot, also offer founding-parent preferences, even though those schools were not founded by parents.
Only a handful define the term with any precision. That leaves it up to individual school administrators to grant lottery preferences as they see fit. The Weekly called representatives of two dozen schools in an effort to determine how the founding-parent preference is allocated.
Many schools said the charter language is just boilerplate. They said they have never used the founding-parent preference because they don't want to play favorites. Several others said they only used the preference in their first year of existence.
The Weekly also found that the founding-parent program at Los Feliz has come to the attention of L.A. Unified once before. Although the district raised concerns, it did not stop Los Feliz from picking students on the basis of their parents' jobs. Instead, it merely got Los Feliz to be less obvious about it.
In its charter, Los Feliz defined founding parents as "any parent involved in the founding of the school that volunteered 200 hours toward the creation of the school."
In 2008, Cole-Gutierrez asked Los Feliz to make the requirements less explicit. If it were spelled out too clearly, it could give people the wrong idea.
"It can be considered a form of tuition and limit some community members from seeking enrollment in the school," Cole-Gutierrez wrote in an email. "This has been a general concern of board members."
In response, the school agreed to delete the "minimum hour" language.
"We agree with LAUSD that it sends the wrong message," wrote George Abrams, the Los Feliz board president.
But the change seems to have had no effect on how the founding-parent preference is awarded. Founders are still required to commit to 200 hours of service to the school, and many give more than that. The "minimum hour" language has since been added back into the charter.
Parents also are pressured to contribute to the school, whether they are "founders" or not. As a public school, Los Feliz can't charge tuition. But the imperative to give money is drilled into all parents at orientation.
"Our school does need to fundraise," Newlin told parents of the incoming class in August. "We have to rely heavily on all you guys. To balance our budget, we need to fundraise $300,000."
Last year, she said, the school raised $328,000. That was an impressive figure. Back when she worked at the public schools in Palos Verdes, the PTA was proud to raise just $100,000. But because Los Feliz had to pay to rent its building, its costs were not completely covered by state funding. So Newlin said they would have to once again "make the push for the annual give."
"Some gave $100," Newlin told the crowd. "Some gave as much as $20,000. Any amount you feel comfortable to give goes a long way. ... I'm coming out of the public schools, so this is painful. But we're probably going to need to continue to have you help us."
At any school — public, private or charter — parent involvement is important to success. Even at elite private schools, admissions directors say a parent's willingness to commit time and energy is more important than that parent's wealth or status.
An argument could be made that parents who put in a Herculean volunteer effort should get a boost in the admissions process. It helps the parent and the child, but it helps the school even more.
"The amount of effort it takes to get a new school off the ground is incredible," says Amy Held, executive director of Citizens of the World Charter School, which opened last year with a cohort of founding parents. "You need parents to help serve lunch every day. You need parents to set up your IT department. You need parents to help with fundraising."
Charter advocates say charter schools need to have the flexibility to get the most out of their parent body.
"Parent participation is very important," says Vicky Waters, spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association. "Charters have that autonomy in governance that allows them to do what is best for them."
But Bruce Fuller, the UC Berkeley professor, argues that though such an arrangement may be mutually beneficial, it ends up skewing the student population.
"It's a clever method for inviting in particular kids and families you want in the school," Fuller says. "These mechanisms may not be created with any ill intent. But by enriching the mix of families and kids, the charter starts to look like an elite private school."
Larchmont is 54 percent white and 17 percent Latino. That is strikingly different from the L.A. Unified schools in the same neighborhood. Van Ness Elementary, a few blocks away, is 5 percent white and 71 percent Latino. Vine Street Elementary, just up the street, is 1 percent white and 93 percent Latino.
"I'd like to see the school represent its community rather than representing kids who are in families that can afford to volunteer during the day," says L.A. Unified board member Bennett Kayser, a charter skeptic who was elected to the board with teachers union support.
Kayser says it was "bad policy" to grant founding-parent preferences in lotteries.
"They should be doing a lottery," Kayser says. "Anything that is going to taint that shouldn't be part of the process."
Striving for diversity, Larchmont and Los Feliz also have preferences in the lottery for kids who are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunch. (The founding-parent preference outranks the free-lunch preference, however.) But the subsidized-lunch preference actually makes these charters more — not less — like private schools. Private schools also employ diversity preferences.
The founding-parent preference was intended for charters that are founded by parents. But the preference also is used by large charter-management organizations. In those schools, parents play a supporting role. But the actual founding is done by the charter organization. So why do they need a founding-parent lottery preference?
"Sometimes there are some parents who really, really help you," says Marco Petruzzi, the CEO of Green Dot. "They help on the door-knocking. They help on the organizing. They help set up meetings. For those parents, we have, at times, given them founding-parent status."
Petruzzi says not all Green Dot schools use the preference, and Green Dot stops awarding founding-parent status after the school's first year.
"You can only issue it once," he says. "It's not like you issue it every year. ... We are extremely careful not to get out of bounds on any of these laws. That could mean the charter being revoked."
Two other charter-management organizations, Aspire and Partnerships to Uplift Communities, include similar provisions in their charters. An Aspire spokeswoman says the organization has not used its founding-parent preference yet in Los Angeles. PUC's charters give preference to "developers," but a PUC spokeswoman denies that such preferences had ever been granted.
Larchmont was in a difficult spot. In previous years, there had not been as much demand for founding-parent spots. But now the word was out, and the school was overwhelmed. Officials also were aware — because a reporter had shown up at orientation meetings — that whatever they did would have to withstand public scrutiny. So they turned to L.A. Unified for guidance.
The district ultimately decided there was no fair way to offer the preference after the school was founded.
"We want to make sure everyone has equitable access," Cole-Gutierrez tells the Weekly. "Founding families is for a school that is starting. ... A school that has been in existence for several years, and is way past its founding, in our review is not consistent with the definition of founding families."
In late August, parents who had signed up got an email from Brian Johnson, the school's executive director.
"Unfortunately, you will not have an opportunity to become a founding parent at Larchmont Charter School," he wrote. "We understand this may be deeply disappointing to many of you and for that we are very sorry. We regret attempting to design and roll out a process that in the end we could not responsibly continue with."
Johnson still hoped they would enter the lottery, but he understood if they wanted something that was more of a sure thing. So he recommended they try Citizens of the World, which is looking to establish new charters in Mar Vista, Silver Lake, Echo Park and Venice. The parents still could become "founders" there.
When Shana Stein got the email, she was indeed disappointed. She understands that Larchmont was scared of tangling with the L.A. Unified bureaucracy, but she worries what effect it would have on the school in future years.
"With charter schools, there is a certain amount of fundraising and level of commitment that has to go on," Stein says. "By not having founding parents, it makes me worry about the school's ability to be able to maintain that consistent level of commitment and cheerleading and fundraising."
For Joy Blaser, though, it was a load off her mind.
"I'm actually a little relieved I don't have to go through the process of having to run down there," she says.
Los Feliz has pressed ahead with its founding-parent program.
Founding parents were essential to helping the school find and move to its new location in Glassell Park.
The building is unique for a schoolhouse. It was initially designed for the Chiat/Day advertising agency by some forward-thinking architect who must have believed it would foster creativity. It has no walls. Instead of classrooms, the structure has a large central area, divided by cargo containers. It also has a dance studio, a music-recording facility and an arts space for an artist in residence.
On Labor Day weekend, Stephanie Ragle, a founding parent, was busily coordinating volunteers as they prepared for the first day of school. Ragle and her husband have an architecture firm and were deeply involved in the move to the new location. In the first year, there had been complaints that the school was too noisy, so a bunch of parents had installed sound-deadening panels and added new walls between classrooms to break up the space.
"This school is what you make it," says Ronni Minnis, another founding parent, who was chosen for her organizational skills, which are the product of 15 years as a celebrity personal assistant. "It could not have been done without the founding parents."
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If L.A. Unified had decided to crack down on Larchmont, why was it allowing Los Feliz to continue?
In an interview, Cole-Gutierrez says he did not know that Los Feliz offers lottery preferences to new founding parents.
"I think that might require some further looking and following up," he says.
Ryan Deto contributed to this story.