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UTLA-led rally at Castelar Elementary puts charters in crosshairs

Craig Clough | May 4, 2016

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Parents, students and teachers rallied Wednesday at Castelar Street Elementary School in Chinatown.

About 200 parents, students and teachers rallied Wednesday morning outside Castelar Street Elementary School in Chinatown as part of a “walk-in” calling for lower class sizes at LA Unified, increased staffing and more accountability for Prop. 39, the law that gives charter schools the right to use empty class space at district schools through a process called “co-location.”

Several TV news crews were on hand for the demonstration, which saw parents, teachers and students march around the block hoisting banners and chanting before walking into the school. There were no speeches or news conference.

The choice of Castelar as a focus for media attention was no coincidence, as parent leaders at the school recently stopped a planned co-location of a charter school there.

“With the threat, the defunding of public education and then also the co-location effort, with Metro Charter School wanting to take over so-called extra space, this community was in an uproar, the parents were in an uproar. And it doesn’t make any sense to them,” Arlene Inouye, who is treasurer for UTLA, told LA School Report. “So they rallied together and have been front and center in protesting the ability of the charter schools to do that.”

The walk-in was part of a national effort organized by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, with protests and rallies going on in cities around the country. UTLA took part in a similar national walk-in day on Feb. 17. The Alliance said rallies were planned in 80 cities Wednesday as part of the Reclaim Our Schools protest.

According to Inouye, there were rallies planned at 150 LA Unified schools Wednesday, although it is unclear how many schools were the site of rallies. Because a focus was on co-locations, more than 500 charter parents signed a letter addressed to UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl asking him to stop the event out of concern for protests happening in front of students. “We will be shouted at, maligned and disrespected, our children will ask us what they’ve done wrong, and their teachers will, as always, be expected to rise above it all,” the letter said.

Caputo-Pearl was not present at the Castelar event. A UTLA notice did not specifically say that rallies were planned at co-locations, and according to the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), only one unidentified charter school was the site of a demonstration.

“So far, it looks like UTLA listened to the hundreds of charter families who urged them to let charter students learn in peace today,” said CCSA spokesman Jason Mandel in an email. “We’re aware of just one charter school where UTLA staged a demonstration. As charter families stepped off the sidewalk into the busy street to avoid the UTLA members shouting at them, a few charter students were heard asking their parents, ‘Why don’t they like us?’ If Alex Caputo-Pearl’s goal today was to make a few children feel demonized, he succeeded.”

LA Unified communications director Shannon Haber said the district did not have an official estimate as to how many schools were the site of rallies. It is common practice for the Los Angeles School Police Department to provide extra security at UTLA rallies, and in an email Haber said, “According to School Police, we did have more officers available if needed, but they were not needed.”

Although there were multiple stated reasons for the rally in the UTLA notice, co-location was on the mind of the parents LA School Report spoke to at Castelar. The school has 570 students and is at about 75 percent capacity, according to the district. In response to Metro’s plans to co-locate, parents at Castelar recently gathered more than 2,400 signatures in a petition and lobbied to keep those classrooms from being shared. Metro has since canceled its plans to move into the school.

Castelar has a reputation for high performance. LA School Report in September identified it as one of 16 schools with above average poverty for the district, an above average number of English learners and above average scores on the Smarter Balanced standardized tests. On the recent CORE accountability system, the school scored a 91 out of 100. The district average was 60.

“Earlier this year we successfully spoke out against co-location, and I think it’s great that we don’t have a charter school occupying classrooms that we use — arts, music, science, PE. I’m glad that our community resources aren’t being taken,” said Castelar parent Martin Wong. “But I recognize that it is gong to start all over again next year, because there are a lot of schools out there looking for free space. And I think it’s great, kids should come in and use it, but they should join our school. I don’t think it’s OK for another school to come in and take away space from a school that’s been successful for generations and decades helping inner-city kids score really well.”

Unlike many of the UTLA-led rallies over the last year, the Castelar rally featured far fewer teachers and far more more parents and students, and it was parents holding the bullhorns and leading the chants.IMG_1181 One of those with a bullhorn was Jasmine Wang, whose child is in kindergarten at Castelar.

“According to Prop. 39 we have quote unquote empty classrooms, except we do use those classrooms, they just are not with full-time teachers,” Wang said.” And that really pushed a lot of us coming together — Spanish speakers, Cantonese-speaking parents and English-speaking parents — to say we don’t need another school in here, our school is great, come check out our programs.”

She added, “We are really hoping that our voices are heard, our students are heard, our parents and our community’s voices are heard that we need smaller class sizes and we need you all to prioritize your funding that exists to our kids.”

In her comments to LA School Report, Inouye referenced a larger battle her union is waging with the charter school movement as a nonprofit organization, Great Public Schools Now, finalizes plans to expand charter school access within the district. An early draft of the plan, which is backed by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, stated a goal to enroll half of all of the district’s students in charter schools within eight years, though it has pulled back from that figure in recent months. UTLA leaders, looking to degrade the plan and erode public support for it, use their own terminology when discussing it.

“We have billionaires like the Broad-Walmart plan who have said they are going to take over our schools, take over half our district and turn them into unregulated charters. So this is a message to the charter schools, the California Charter Schools Association and everyone else that we want our public schools, and we will fight for them,” Inouye said.

In response to Inouye’s comments, CCSA provided the following statement from Gloria Rodriguez, a parent of a student at Aspire Pacific Academy.

“I’m one of more than 500 charter parents and supporters who signed a letter asking UTLA’s president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, not to disrupt charter school campuses today. I will continue to ask UTLA to stop spreading misinformation about charter schools and criticizing parents like me for seeking out the best possible education for my kids. It confuses me when they blame us and the choice we have made for our children rather than focusing their time and energy on making district schools better. Maybe if they did, parents would be lining up to get into the district schools just as they are lining up to get into my charter school,” Rodriguez said.

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