Just in: ‘Game changer’ to game over for Westside ‘immersion’ school
Craig Clough | May 27, 2015
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LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines has cancelled the district’s plans for a proposed construction project at a Westside school campus that was to house an expanded foreign language immersion program.
Explaining the rationale for his decision in a three-page memo to members of the school board and its bond oversight committee yesterday, Cortines said the project “will not move forward,” but he vowed to work with district officials to provide an alternative pathway for students to continue their immersion studies into high school.
The decision is a blow to school board member Steve Zimmer, who had hailed the expansion of the program into a new school as a “game changer” for the district as part of an overarching strategy to stem the tide of falling enrollment.
The proposed Mandarin and English Dual-Language Immersion Elementary School on the current campus footprint of Mark Twain Middle School, approved by the board last year, was a $30 million project intended to house students from the immersion program at nearby Broadway Elementary, which currently has no space for an expansion. It was a bold move, projected as the first facility built by the district to accommodate an instructional innovation open to all students.
But opposition to the project from members of the nearby community, including the West Mar Vista Residents Association, was potent as concerns were raised about increased traffic and congestion the expanded campus and construction might bring to the area. Even LA City Council member Mike Bonin, who represents Mar Vista, voiced his opposition to the project.
“I have reflected on what I learned from our District technical experts, as well as the concerns I have heard from community and school stakeholders,” the Cortines memo said. “It is important that this established Mandarin Foreign Language Immersion Program continue to be offered at Broadway for the long-term. I am supportive of expanding the District’s Mandarin Foreign Language Immersion Program and other Foreign Language Immersion Programs; however, the construction project at Mark Twain is not the avenue to do so, and it will not move forward.”
Community members leading opposition to the project directed anger at Zimmer, whom they accused of pushing a “pet program” over their concerns. A group and affiliated website, stopcommuterschool.com, formed to oppose the project, claiming that it would create a “traffic armageddon.”
A draft environmental impact report was created by the district for the project, and the public comment period on the report closed on May 18. In his memo, Cortines acknowledged that community opposition played a key role in his decision to halt the project.
“The Draft EIR was made available for public comment in late March. Very soon after the draft report was released, the Superintendent’s Office was inundated with calls, emails and letters from concerned community members, stakeholders, parents and teachers,” he said.
Instead of relocating the program to Mark Twain, Cortines wants to keep it at Broadway. He wrote that the district will deliver four portable classrooms to Broadway to help accommodate the current enrollment levels and that the district will continue to look at ways to expand foreign language immersion programs at other nearby campuses.
In a passionate letter addressed to members of the Mar Vista and Venice communities, Zimmer outlined why he had supported the program’s expansion. He also expressed some disdain at the “reprehensible” tactics used by some who were opposed to the project, who he said “vilified” parents of students in the immersion program. He also said he supported Cortines’ current decision to halt the project, but that Cortines will have to bring a new plan to present to the board for approval.
Zimmer added that he hoped the project at Mark Twain could be saved through a redesign that addressed the community’s concerns.
“I am asking the Superintendent to determine the best course of action,” Zimmer wrote. “I expect a redesign of the proposed construction can address the aforementioned issues and that it remains the most appropriate instructional plan. If it cannot, I expect the Superintendent to present an alternative plan to move forward that honors all the LAUSD programs in question and the families who chose these programs.”
Zimmer also said the project was part of a larger effort that — along with expanded STEM and arts programs — that “will lead to a public education renaissance throughout our Westside schools.”
Zimmer apologized to parents at Broadway, saying, “For families in the Broadway Spanish Immersion program and mainstream program to have to endure yet another round of others thinking they know what’s best for their children or treating their children as if they can be easily discarded is heartbreaking. On behalf of LAUSD, myself and our community, I am sorry.”
In an email addressed to Cortines, one parent at Broadway expressed outrage over the decision. She described an atmosphere of intimidation by local residents, aimed at parents who would have sent their children to the new school. She also accused Cortines of bowing to their ill-behavior.
“We have been the target of online and in-person attacks on our culture, language, and perceived socio-economic status,” Lily Chan, wrote to Cortines. “At the April 22 community meeting at Mark Twain Middle School, our parents endured heckling and catcalls. The meeting grew so heated that LAUSD police escorted a group of us to our cars for our own safety.”
She added, “You are sending a clear message: LAUSD will listen to loud voices and bullying tactics.”