Charter school scores hard-won approval despite objections by board staff, president and superintendent
Mike Szymanski | March 9, 2016
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To help a model charter school expand into high school, the LA Unified school board took unprecedented steps Tuesday night to cobble together a plan, concocting at least half a dozen proposals and amendments during a lengthy and at times contentious discussion. District staff had recommended that the board reject the school’s petition.
Ultimately, the charter school was approved for three years, against the recommendations of not only the district’s charter school review staff but also Superintendent Michelle King and school board president Steve Zimmer, in whose district the school is located.
This was the third time in two meetings that the board voted for charters against staff recommendations. The robust debate both this and last month indicates that the board, which has been recently criticized for voting against charters, is trying to help charters they find effective, even if they don’t meet all LA Unified qualifications.
About 80 students, teachers and parents from Westside Innovative School House Inc. (WISH) elementary and middle schools in Westchester cheered and applauded the decision after some of them had waited more than eight hours before the board took up the issue. The vote was four in favor of allowing the school to try a high school for three years, two against, with Zimmer abstaining.
The vote followed a frenzied debate where sidebar conversations were happening in different parts of the school board auditorium and ended as board member Monica Garcia was standing near a back door to leave early because she was the keynote speaker at a Linked Learning Showcase at a local high school. It was her plan for the WISH high school that eventually passed.
After the meeting, Zimmer and King remained in their seats for nearly half an hour talking about the evening’s drawn-out discussion.
“We deeply care about the kids, this was not a charter or anti-charter issue, it was very complicated,” Zimmer told LA School Report. WISH is in his district, and he supports what they have done, but he remains concerned that the school cannot handle the leap to starting a high school just yet. Zimmer offered a proposal that WISH students attend Venice High School beginning in the fall in a “full inclusion model that would be comparable to the WISH model.” His five-part proposal would also expedite money for disability access to the classrooms because WISH is noted for having a high percentage of students in wheelchairs.
Zimmer thought this was the best deal for the school and could solve the problem of not yet having classrooms for their new high school. But the board rejected it.
“Unfortunately, the board was very divisive and disrespectful in not giving any credence to the board member who knows their district the best,” Zimmer said. He added, “Not one of my colleagues has the enrollment pressures in high schools like I have on the Westside. They did not defer to my valid perspective.”
It was the latest chapter of battles over charters going on throughout the district. In the last week, 30 charter organizations signed a letter supporting WISH’s charter petition. The district is facing declining enrollment while dealing with well-funded proposals to increase charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated.
“Everyone is in such a bunkered battleground,” Zimmer said.
“I abundantly support the school, but this vote doesn’t mean their problems are solved,” he said. “When I abstained, I did not vote against the school, I just in good conscience could not vote for a plan that did not have a real strategy to succeed.”
But WISH’s executive director, Shawna Draxton, said she was thrilled by the board’s turnaround and accepted the three-year commitment for the high school, although she would have preferred five years, which is standard for such charter school proposals at the district.
“I am grateful for the vote, and we will continue to work with the district,” Draxton said. “At this point, we do not have a place for the high school students to go to this fall, but we will find a place.”
The two other WISH schools share spaces on traditional LA Unified campuses, and WISH did not apply for space under Prop. 39 in time for this fall for the new high school, which is supposed to start with 84 students and eventually serve up to 336 students in ninth through 12th grades.
California Charter Schools Association‘s Sarah Angel said she was very encouraged by the school board’s discussion and decision. “The board was really compelled to make it work,” she said. “The success of this national model is that all students can learn together, and WISH can be replicated in schools everywhere.”
WISH allows the teachers to have modest autonomy and includes all students with moderate and severe disabilities mixed in with other students. It wouldn’t have worked at Venice High School, the WISH team explained. WISH so far has a high concentration of students with special needs and ethnic diversity and shows test scores higher than the district average.
But the district’s charter school review team was concerned about declining net assets and expenses exceeding income in three of the past four years. The staff report shows that the submitted budget for the new high school projects a net loss of more than $48,000 in the startup year.
José Cole-Gutiérrez, director of LA Unified’s Charter Schools Division, said his staff recommended rejecting the petition in part because of the financial situation of WISH, and also thought they did not have the commitment for enough students to start the high school. “Their record of projections are overly optimistic and have not materialized in fact,” Cole-Gutiérrez said. “Compounding that, in the report they have no facilities plan and, especially on the Westside, that is a challenge.”
Board member Scott Schmerelson apologized to Cole-Gutiérrez and his staff, saying he felt they were “treated as if you were fools and buffoons and did not know what you are talking about” by other board members. “I apologize for the way I saw you being treated,” he said.
Nearly every board member had a different plan for the school to get around rejection. Richard Vladovic suggested simply adding a ninth grade to their present charter plan and allowing them to come back next year to reapply for a full high school.
Monica Ratliff suggested the school consider becoming a pilot school, and Superintendent King suggested the school become an affiliated charter school. Both options would give LA Unified more control, such as with teacher salaries and hiring processes. WISH administrators turned down those offers in the past.
Being part of the district would not allow WISH to receive a state startup grant of $575,000, which the school was promised once the district approved their petition. WISH’s Draxton said the school will now get the money with the board’s three-year decision.
At one point during the discussion, board members seemed to lean toward giving the school only a one-year tryout.
Newly appointed King, who last week talked about a healing between charter and non-charter factions at a town hall meeting in the San Fernando Valley, proposed a solution of approving WISH for one year and discussing a possible affiliated charter status. “We could help them with staff and extra experts that they would have access to,” King suggested. “They can have their own program and still realize the benefits of being part of a larger school.”
Her plan was also rejected.
Ref Rodriguez, who has created charter schools, said his staff analyzed WISH’s financial history and explained that most of the problems were with one 6th-grade program. But he said he was also concerned that the petition submitted by supporters of the school did not include their “intent to enroll, and I need to hear about that.”
George McKenna, who ultimately voted against the three-year plan, said he thought WISH should go to Venice and withdraw their petition. He was concerned that making an exception for WISH would be unfair to other charter applications past and future.
“There is a lot of passion and I am concerned about facts,” McKenna said. “I have feelings too. I am concerned that the process is fair to all charters. … I”m frustrated about the way we are doing this. Why do we have staff making reports? I also care about what the children say, and how great they think the school is, but that will not sway me.”
Nevertheless, a litany of children, including one who was unable to speak clearly, presented their case to the board and even addressed specific board members on video.
“WISH should have a high school because it’s a powerful community that pushes students to do their best,” said 8th grader Oliver Drexel.
Ivey Steinberg, mother of a 7th grader confined to a wheelchair, said her son Jack has a 4.0 grade-point average because he thrives in an inclusive environment. She said her neighborhood school wasn’t accessible and she had no other options.
Suzanne Goldstein, parent founder of WISH, said the school should have no problem getting its high school enrollment. “I appreciate this robust discussion and want to have inclusive schools everywhere. We have done our best to date.”
A WISH 5th-grade teacher, Pilar Chavez, said she found her calling at WISH and spoke to the board about a student who couldn’t read. “He wanted to be taught, and the WISH classmates all participated and within a year he was reading at a 3rd-grade level,” Chavez said. “You need to have every teacher involved in inclusive education, and it takes working countless hours to make it happen.”
The vote ultimately was for a three-year authorization with reviews every year, as suggested by Garcia. It was seconded by Vladovic. Ratliff and Rodriguez agreed; Schmerelson and McKenna voted against it, and Zimmer abstained. Student board member Leon Popa, whose vote is advisory, voted in favor.
The vote weighed heavy on Zimmer. “I absolutely and completely as a board member say this district supports the WISH model,” he said. “I have been personally moved by it, and it has helped me to change as an educator. … To say that WISH is valued, well respected, doesn’t even cover it.”
Zimmer said he preferred that WISH would have made some deal with the district before the messy public meeting.
“The board all wanted to put kids first, and we were all forced to think out of the box,” Zimmer said. “I hope and pray they figure this out.”