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Ninth St. Elementary: A Polished Gem Near LA’s Skid Row*

Ryan White | November 15, 2013

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Photo: Downtown News

Photo: Downtown News

When downtown’s 9th Street Elementary closed in 2010 to undergo construction on a gleaming new $54 million campus, its state academic rankings placed it among the lowest of the low, even among similar schools.

Now, with a gorgeous new campus and ambitious new principal, the school represents a potential bright spot in a district beset by iPad debacles and budget bickering. “There’s really nothing the same about this school except for the name,” said Dean Simpson, the elementary school’s principal.

The new campus, funded by three bond measures — K, R and Y — opened in August, following a three-year-closure, and is home to both an LA Unified-run K-through-5 elementary and a charter middle school operated by the nonprofit Para Los Niños, which raised an additional $12 million.

What was once a sad desert of asphalt and tired portables is now home to a eye-catching multi-story campus whose 78,000 square feet include a new gymnasium, dance studios, library, playground and underground parking. A school-based health center for students at both schools has yet to open.

“I think things are off to a fantastic start,” said Simpson, emphasizing this year’s rollout of Common Core standards and a STEM-based curricula that will take “an engineering approach to teaching kids.”

That ambitious teaching program sounds encouraging, but the students attending the school still face some real challenges.

The elementary is at about half-capacity this year with 180 students, and 91 percent of the mostly Hispanic student body is eligible for Title 1 funds, according to Simpson.

Because “downtown is not the hottest spot for families yet,” Simpson says a number of the school’s students are “on permit,” which means that while they reside outside the school’s enrollment area, they are allowed to attend because their parents work nearby.

An additional 20 students come from Union Rescue Mission, a shelter a few blocks away.

Those combined circumstances make it harder to bring down the school’s student turnover rate. After the shelter’s 45-day transition period, families often relocate farther from the school. The district is trying to encourage those families to stay at the school by offering bus cards and granting exceptions to the normal rules governing student placement.

“If you’re homeless, the rules don’t apply – you can stay,” Simpson said. “We really, really encourage families to stay.”

But some students have already left this year after their parents found a new home or job.

A lack of after-school programming has also checked first-year enrollment. “I know some parents chose not to send their kids here,” Simpson said, explaining that the school missed grant deadlines that would’ve allowed the school to host K-1 after-school programming. Currently, the school’s sports and after-school programming is limited to grades 2-5.

“I expect a lot of families next year when we’re able to provide those programs as well,” he said.

Asked how Skid Row impacts daily school life, Simpson, who lives only a few blocks away, said the school is well buffered.

“The campus is very enclosed — we’re like a little fortress,” he said. “Once you’re in here, it’s just a really beautiful campus.

*Clarifies how the campus was funded, by Measures K, R and Y; not Q.


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