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Playa Vista dispute reflects classism as major issue facing LAUSD

Mike Szymanski | January 5, 2016

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RamonCortinesScoldingThe school board vote was simple, but the matter is far more complex, drawing a focus to an issue many within LA Unified find uncomfortable to talk about: classism.

The issues involved in the Playa Vista Elementary School dispute are a microcosm of complexities within the second largest school district in the country. They involve noise and air pollution, freeways and airports, pitting charter schools with traditional public schools, school over-crowding, district budget cuts and an increase in demand to teach the students’ parents in an ever-growing adult education program at LAUSD.

And, it also involves classism: With the area in question a part of Los Angeles that includes million dollar beach houses and families with yachts as well as some of the most notorious gang-infested housing projects in the city, where do children go to school?

The friction began when Playa Vista Elementary opened in 2012, offering a highly-regarded STEM program for kindergarten through fifth grades. It had 26 classrooms at the time but has now grown to 540 students with no more space available. New housing under construction nearby suggests that by 2020, the school will need to accommodate 400 more students in 14 more classrooms.

A proposal will move fourth and fifth graders from Playa Vista to Wright Middle School by the 2016-2017 school year. Wright also has 19 classrooms on campus for the Westside Innovative School House charter elementary school (WISH). The district is looking for a new home for the charter classes and is considering renovating the adult school at Emerson, which was originally built as an elementary school.

Now, there are families who want a separate middle school for the area. Playa Vista families even issued a press release in that regard. Parent and longtime resident Lisa Hamor said the conflict has resulted in “pitting schools against schools, and potentially students against students with little or no regard for our students or our existing school communities and their desire for a quality education.”

Parents and students protest outside of Playa Vista Elementary

Parents and students protest outside of Playa Vista Elementary

The school board voted to conduct a feasibility study to see about locating the charter school at the Westchester-Emerson Community Adult School and upgrading Wright’s science lab, as it seeks to deal with increasing enrollment at the local schools — one of the only areas in Los Angeles where enrollment is burgeoning.

Underlying any final decision are issues of diversity.

In one of his final speeches as superintendent, made at last month’s board meeting, Ramon Cortines recounted how the issues are playing out across the district. He drew hisses and boos from the audience when he said, “I’m going say it the way it is, I’ve been to these schools, I’ve spent 60 years of my life dealing with the issue of integration, and I know some of you will disagree with me: One of the issues that you as community are going to have to face is the class issue.”

He added: “There are some people in our schools that don’t want to go to school with those children, based on class.”

A woman in the audience shook her head, and he pointed to her. “Ma’am, I see you saying it’s not true. I’ve seen it, and I have gotten the letters that it is true,” he said. “So I’m saying that together in working on an instructional plan, you are going to have to face that head on because there are people that feel they are entitled because of where they live, and I am saying you can’t escape it anymore.”

Cortines continued despite audible protests. “Our children need to grow up in an education that deals with all levels of socio-economics, all levels of ethnic and cultural diversity. We cannot escape it anymore. And this school district and this area needs to be a model of that.”

School board president Steve Zimmer, whose district includes these and nine feeder schools, said he apologized for past miscommunications about solutions but cautioned all sides of the issues to approach solutions in a respectful manner.

“I will not take responsibility for way people have treated each other, and the idea that somehow we’ve created the animosity, that is about something else,” he said. “We must take this difficult and painful journey together.”


Local teacher, Kelly Morisaki, who is also a Westchester resident, said, “We already have a successful program at Orville Wright; make our middle school better. There is no reason for division and separation.”

Board member Mónica Ratliff questioned why WISH was getting preferential treatment about the move, and she said she didn’t like the idea of turning an adult school into a charter school.

Rene Mitchell, who is continuing her education at Emerson Adult School said, “What I see is my hopes and dream for future slipping away again. Do not deprive us of this school.” And, Gabriel Scott, who attended Emerson to get adult education said, “My class is filled with adults who want an education, and Emerson is in a perfect location now, don’t change it.”

Cortines said he toured the campuses on several occasions to figure out what works best. He said that adult education is expanding, and there is a waiting list of 16,000 for some LAUSD programs.

The school board voted (with Ratliff against) to add four classrooms at Playa Vista and to renovate up to five existing classrooms at Wright to create flexible learning/science labs and study the viability of sites and possible relocation of the Emerson adult school.

Zimmer told his board colleagues that the issue will not easily fade away, conceding that they are complex disputes “coming soon,” he said, “to a district near you.”

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