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Board defies district, keeps open 2 charters in Watts

Vanessa Romo | May 14, 2014

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Students rejoice watts design center LAUSD

Students rejoice at news to keep open New Designs Center in Watts

The Los Angeles Unified school board faced long hours of personal and emotional pleas yesterday on a vast array of issues, including how to spend $837 million in money directed to helping low-income students, children in foster care and English learners.

A parade of community members addressing the board at the end, each speaking for two minutes to express support for a particular need, was clearly the heart of the meeting. It was an exercise conceived by board President Richard Vladovic to show that the board is listening to public concerns, even though the hard work of making line-item budget decisions is yet ahead, and it remains unclear whether anything anyone said changes members’ priorities.

In fact, in a meeting that stretched well-past the cocktail and dinner hours, the most fruitful arguments came from parents, students, and even a former congresswoman, who convinced the board to keep open two charter schools in Watts, one of the most economically-challenged areas of the city.

After several hours of testimony, the board defied the recommendations of Superintendent John Deasy’s staff and voted against shutting down the Watts Learning Center Charter Middle School (see LAUSD report card here) and New Designs Charter School – Watts (see LAUSD report card here).

In both cases, the schools were found by district staff to offer an “unsound education program.”

At Watts Learning Center, the 2013 API of 621 was lower than the Resident Schools Median of 632 and is a decline of 56 points when considering the school’s 2009-2010 Growth API of 677. And according to Jose Cole-Gutierrez, the head of LA Unified’s Charter School Division, students there are underperforming in all subject areas; the overall the 2012-13 English Language Arts proficiency rate was 27 percent while the math proficiency rate was 11 percent.

But advocates of the school, including attorney Janelle Ruley, said the staff is “working tirelessly” to improve the quality of education.

“We are turning a corner…we’re on the road to recovery,” she assured the board.

And apparently they agreed. The board failed to get the four votes needed to uphold a motion to deny its charter renewal, thus keeping it open.

In the case of New Designs, the district had recommended a denial of the renewal charter petition claiming it, too, is performing worse than surrounding schools. The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) also urged the board to close the school.

However, several speakers disputed the findings by LA Unified and the CCSA.

One supporter of New Designs, a math teacher there, skewered the board for misreading its own data and accused the CCSA of “doing a hit job” on the school.

“If you read this report carefully you will be amazed at how the charter school division will cite the right law, use the right data, but somehow come to the wrong conclusion,” he said.  “Somehow they said that our API score, 674, is less than 609, the resident schools API. And that is where they got it wrong, and the math is wrong. Board members, rectify this wrong.”

Former Congresswoman Diane Watson also appealed to the board to give the school more time. She argued that despite evidence of poor performance, New Designs plays a pivotal role in the community.

“If there is any area that has been underserved by providing education for all children, it is the area referred to as Watts,” Watson told the board. “And if you [deny the renewal] and leave a hole in the area it is a misdeed.”

Eventually, the board vote ended, 3 to 3, leaving it open. But Vladovic warned New Designs leadership to remedy a failure to offer Special Education services consistent with students’ Individualized Education Programs or it would be back before the board to defend itself.

Following the most contentious arguments of the day, the board unanimously approved a plan from board member Monica Garcia to develop more wellness centers — school-based health clinics — that can provide “comprehensive and integrated acute and preventative medical, mental, oral and social support care to students.”

Arguments persisted over whether the board should commit $50 million for the next phase of development or, as member Tamar Galatzan unsuccessfully argued, create an overall development plan to leverage money from private partners before earmarking a specific amount from the district.

Currently, 12 wellness centers exist throughout the District, and two more will open this fall. In all, they cost the district $34 million.

“LAUSD’s Wellness Initiative represents an approach to student and community health that is among the most hopeful strategies to health equity for all,” said Maryjane Puffer, executive director of the L.A. Trust for Children’s Health.

“Over 20,000 students, family and community members have used the services and that will more than triple by next year.  LAUSD and partners should invest generously in this opportunity for student health that directly leads to student success.”

The board’s action approved the $50 million but also directs the superintendent to create within six months a plan that identifies opportunities to leverage matching funds that expands the number of wellness centers and services at schools.

Another hotly debated issue was a motion to support a living wage of $15 an hour for the city’s hotel workers, which it eventually did.

Although the resolution is a largely symbolic measure with no direct bearing on the school district, it may have significant implications for pending negotiations with several of the district’s labor unions, especially SEIU Local 99, which is asking the district to raise its members’ salaries to a minimum of $15 an hour. Many earn considerably less.

Board member Monica Ratliff was the only member to voice opposition. “I worry that this is hypocritical,” she said after pointing out that not all LA Unified employees earn as much.  “We need to get our own house in order.” She abstained in the vote.

The eight hour meeting concluded with the line of parents, students and community leaders weighing in on Deasy’s proposed Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP).

More than 80 people signed up to speak, some arriving as early as 6 a.m. — seven hours before the start of the meeting and more than 11 hours before the first speaker took the podium. For two minutes at a time, they pressed the board to allocate funds to their cause of choice.

Several speakers associated with the Community Rights Campaign lobbied for restorative justice counselors; advocates for English Language Learners asked for additional support services; and still other parents asked the district to restore after school programs and arts  education.

How persuasive any of them was will be more apparent at the June board meeting, when the board moves closer to finalizing the budget for the 2014-2015 academic year.

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