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School board OKs first steps for Hale expansion at Highlander site, rejects charter school

Mike Szymanski | February 9, 2016

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Vivian Ekchian, Local District Northwest superintendent

In dual votes Tuesday about a long-vacant school in the west San Fernando Valley, the LA Unified school board halted a charter school that was previously proposed for the site and instead allowed a district school to pursue it.

The school board gave a unanimous thumbs-up for Hale Charter Academy to pursue a proposal to develop a performing arts school on the campus of Highlander Elementary School in West Hills. Hale Charter Academy, named after the astronomer George Ellery Hale, is now 6th through 8th grades in Woodland Hills. The expansion, which would be called Hale Charter Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, would go through high school graduation and continue into two college level grades (grade 14), allowing for an Associated Arts degree.

Then, in a cliff-hanger vote an hour later, the board voted 4-3 against allowing an El Camino Real Alliance charter school to be built at the site after the charter held some meetings with the Woodland Hills community over the past year to replace Highlander, which had been vacant for three decades.

It’s an area of the LAUSD district where students have few options to attend a public high school and many move to private schools or charter schools, according to district staff.

“I am puzzled with the misperceptions about this plan, but I’m thrilled that we will be able to expand the arts and other wonderful programs already going on at Hale,” said Vivian Ekchian, the local district northwest superintendent for LAUSD, after the first vote was taken authorizing an estimated $500,000 for Hale to pursue the expansion. She was instrumental in clearing up some of the issues to the school board about the district school’s expansion. She said that the plan for expanding into the space was discussed for nearly a decade.

The Highlander school site was a rundown encampment for homeless for decades, and El Camino Real Alliance offered to build a charter school there for 550 students in grades kindergarten through 8th. But that plan was delayed in October when school board member Scott Schmerelson pointed out that there were plans for the same site for a public school that would keep the students under the LAUSD funding umbrella.

It would also ensure that the teachers at the school would fall under the LA Unified union contract. In an unusual move, four labor leaders on Tuesday spoke in favor of the Hale Charter expansion during their own reports to the board.

“It is a well-rounded curriculum that serves the community needs, we urge you support it,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl. After the vote, he said he was happy with the decision.

The president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, Juan Flecha, who represents principals and administrators, said he previously worked in the area and said, “This is a definite need, and it’s an innovative and exciting project forward.”

Jackie Keen, a community volunteer on the El Camino board and resident near the Highlander site, said, “You can approve the charter school and let’s work together.” She, and the representatives of El Camino, were voted down.

The vote wasn’t for a complete commitment to the charter school at the site, but when the board was asked to approve it, only Monica Garcia, Ref Rodriguez and Monica Ratliff voted for it. Ultimately, school board president Steve Zimmer, George McKenna, Richard Vladovic and Schmerelson voted against it.

“I’m concerned about the process,” Garcia said before the vote. “In October, the response around what to do with Highlander was mostly that we were told we do not have money to operate that site. What’s not here is how we’re going to pay for this.”

LAUSD facilities director Mark Hovatter said that no promises were made to the charter school applicant and made it clear that its proposal could be canceled at any time. He did also point out that if a school is planned for the site, its funding will have to come from some other projects that are already planned by the district.

Ratliff said, “I’m a fan of being as transparent and straightforward as possible,” but she said before the vote against the charter organization, “I would wonder why they would ever want to work with us again.”

Students, parents and teachers from Hale spoke about its successes, as did new principal Chris Perdigao, where there are 2,000 6th through 8th graders. He said the school has a 400-pupil waiting list for their performing arts program. Teachers talked about the school’s jazz band, mariachi band, cheerleaders and dance and acting performances and how they are sharing their work with the community.

Hale teacher Hank Amigo talked about writing plays for students and raising money from the community to help with programs. He recently had 563 students audition for 22 spots in a show. He now also teaches an early morning class where he said 150 students come to dance.

Rodriguez, who previously co-founded charter schools, said, “I’m impressed that the community is galvanized for the plan. I’m concerned where the money is going to come from.”

Zimmer added, “We need to grow enrollment in the district and this is a creative way, and it can permeate the entire district.”

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