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New charter high school prepares LA students for film and TV careers

Sarah Favot | August 15, 2017

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Twin sisters Cierra, left, and Cienna Michaels at LA Promise Charter High School on the first day of school.


Charis Holloman walked onto the campus of his new school Tuesday and didn’t even look back to say goodbye to his parents.

“He’s excited,” Suzette Holloman said of her son’s independence as he started ninth-grade.

Teachers and school staff greeted students with applause, cheers, handshakes, and fist bumps as they arrived for the first day of school at LA Promise Charter High School, one of 11 new charter schools opening this week in LA Unified. It is located on a school campus of St. Brigid Catholic Church in South Los Angeles.

Dressed in uniforms of grey polo shirts and grey hooded sweatshirts donning the purple and white LA Promise logo, students gathered in the courtyard to get their schedules and lined up for class under heavy cloud cover and even some light rain.

The school is run by LA Promise Fund, which co-manages three district schools in South LA and opened a charter middle school last year. As of Tuesday, 70 ninth-graders have enrolled in the new high school. There is room for about 30 more.

Each year the school will enroll the next grade level.

• Read more: Meet the 15 new schools opening in LAUSD this week

Principal Qiana O’Leary said many students are from the surrounding neighborhood, but she also has students from Westchester, Compton, Torrance, and Crenshaw.

The school has a focus on film and television, which attracted students like Charis. Students will spend their afternoons learning from entertainment industry professionals as well as a professor at LA Trade Tech, where students will earn credit toward an associate degree in digital media.

Charis has performed in plays, including “TOM,” an adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” at the Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga.

“We chose this school because of the performing arts aspect, being exposed to the industry, and being associated with LA Trade Tech. It had so much to offer,” Suzette Holloman said.

Holding his schedule before heading to class, Charis said he wants to pursue acting.

“It’s a new school and a new opportunity,” he said.

The TV and film theme is also what attracted twin sisters Cienna and Cierra Michaels to LA Promise High.

“I want to be on-camera,” Cienna said. “I want to be an actress.”

“I felt excited,” Cierra said about coming to school. “I really feel that this year is going to be good for me.”

O’Leary said the school model is called “innovative-based learning,” which is similar to project-based learning, but the difference is students come up with their own projects around the same question rather than the project being dictated by a teacher. The projects will be multidisciplinary and will combine what students are learning in their film and television coursework.

The theme of TV and film was chosen because many board members of LA Promise Fund are in the film and television industry and LA is a hub for production, but also because the students will be taught essential skills of collaboration, communication, and analysis, O’Leary said.

Students will be learning behind-the-scenes skills as well as script writing and editing.

O’Leary said the school is an “educational paradise” that will offer students and families resources like mental health counseling and a safe environment.

The teaching force was recruited from around the country as O’Leary believes passionate and effective educators are key to success.

LA Promise Fund CEO Veronica Melvin said the nonprofit organization’s goal is to build a pipeline of K-12 students to college in South LA.

LA Promise Fund is the result of a merger a year ago between two organizations, Los Angeles Fund for Education, which was founded by former Superintendent John Deasy and philanthropist Megan Chernin to raise money for the district, and LA’s Promise.

LA’s Promise, which emerged in the aftermath of the LA Riots, began co-managing West Adams Preparatory High School with the district when it opened in 2007. Because of the partnership, the school has many autonomies that charter schools have. LA Promise Fund also runs Manual Arts High School and John Muir Middle School. Melvin said the organization wanted to expand its partnership with LA Unified by operating more schools but was rejected by the district, so it turned to public charter schools as a way to invest in the community.

“We are truly agnostic in terms of what type of school you’re running. It’s about providing high-quality services to kids and to their families,” Melvin said. “We really see ourselves as folks that are serving these communities in terms of clients, and so what is the market saying that these students and these families need and want, and we’re trying to provide that to them.”

The LA Unified school board denied LA Promise Fund’s charter petition for its middle and high schools in January 2016, but the LA County Office of Education granted appeals that allowed the schools to open. Melvin said the school district denied the petition because of its track record at its schools regarding English learners and suspensions.

Melvin said the middle school, which is a few blocks away from the high school, had strong scores in state tests in its first year.

Emma Brownell, communications director for LA Promise Fund, noted that their three schools have made significant progress since the organization began co-managing them. English learner reclassification rates equaled or exceed LA Unified’s, while suspension rates have dropped 80 percent to 90 percent. She said the district’s denial of the two charters focused on “two minor sub-issues within English learners and suspension as the basis for their denial.”

Melvin said the goals of LA Promise Fund’s district and charter schools are the same, as are their main elements, like wraparound services, active parent centers, and programming for English learners.

“The goal of the first day of school for any school is how do we deliver the best education that meets the unique needs for every single student,” Melvin said.

Melvin said they are striving to close the achievement and opportunity gap.

“What we’re trying to do is close that and demonstrate that it can be closed for the communities that … have a tradition of being the hardest to serve in terms of outcomes.”

*This article has been updated to add LA Promise Fund’s clarification on their two charter denials.

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