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Zimmer: immersion school is ‘game-changer’ to stem falling enrollment

Michael Janofsky | April 6, 2015

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LA Unified board member Steve Zimmer

LA Unified board member Steve Zimmer

Despite neighborhood opposition to a proposed $30 million Mandarin-immersion elementary school in Mar Vista, LA Unified school board member Steve Zimmer calls the project “a game-changer” in the district’s efforts to reverse years of enrollment declines that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I don’t have accurate words to express how important this issue is,” he said in an interview with LA School Report. “The future of public education on the west side of LA as it relates to increasing enrollment in the future depends on this.”

The proposed Mandarin and English Dual-Language Immersion Elementary School on the campus of Mark Twain Middle School, approved by the board last year, represents the first time the district would build a facility to accommodate an instructional innovation open to all students, rather than vice versa, in a shift that recognizes the curriculum’s growing popularity with parents and students across the city.

Zimmer said families of 360 students have committed to the new school, drawn by the focus of its language immersion, and a waiting list includes many more.

“The majority of these students would not otherwise go to an LAUSD school,” he said. “That makes this a sea change in terms of whether LAUSD can plan for enrollment growth or decline.”

Enrollment in district schools is expected to decline in the 2015-2016 school year for a 12th consecutive year. In the most recent year for which the district has figures, 2013-2014, the K-through-12 enrollment was 651,322, a 2 percent drop from two years before. District officials estimate that every 3 percent drop costs the district $100 million in funding.

While reasons for the declines are blamed on the growth of charter schools, lower birth rates and outward migration from the city, Zimmer said the district is developing “a portfolio” of strategies to turn the losses around.

The most important part of the effort, he said, is instructional innovation, which makes the new immersion school what he called a “prototype” to replicate across the district.

“This is not instructional innovation following facility development,” he said. “This is facility construction following instructional innovation, and it is a game-changer.”

As planned, the new school would take in students now enrolled in the Mandarin immersion program at Broadway Elementary and expand enrollment by opening the school to all students. The immersion curriculum would continue at Twain and Venice High School.

The proposed school and the three others are all within close proximity of each other, and that’s why neighbors are upset.

They are accusing Zimmer of promoting a “pet program” project that would overwhelm the area with traffic twice a day and “undoubtedly harbor socioeconomic resentment in the community it is invading,” according to a “mission statement” from Mar Vista residents opposed to the new school.

Markus Wagner, who created a website to mobilize opposition to the construction, said Zimmer is overstating the need to accommodate the immersion program and is ignoring community ideas for alternative solutions. Another opponent, Saeed Ali, did a statistical analysis of enrollment at 11 schools in the area and found a vacancy rate of 39 percent, the equivalent of 4,610 empty seats.

“It’s a flashy, glamorous political move,” Wagner said of Zimmer’s plan. “But the need is not so dire to build a new school for $30 million.”

The opposition gained support last week, when the City Council member who represents the neighborhood, Mike Bonin, raised questions about traffic.

In a statement to LA School Report, he said, “I do not have a opinion on where the Mandarin Immersion program should be located, but I have serious and significant concerns about the traffic and neighborhood impacts of its proposed relocation to Mark Twain.”

In an earlier “Dear Neighbor” message to constituents, Bonin elaborated on his concerns but conceded there is little he or the city can do, other than to press the school district to address concerns raised by community residents. LA Unified operates independently from mayoral or city council control.

“Once we fully analyze the (draft environmental impact report), we will prepare our own comment letter, calling out any issue we feel was not adequately analyzed or mitigated in the DEIR,” Bonin wrote. “It is critical to me that the school district address the community’s concerns.”

Zimmer said he’s entirely open to resolving issues raised by local residents, and finding solutions is imperative.

“We absolutely have to address traffic and gridlock, and they will be addressed,” he said.

But the mission for the city is larger, he insisted, calling the building of the new school essential for the district’s future.

“Now we’re at a moment where we have to turn the page to make strategical investments in projects based on enrollment growth,” he said. “This is the prototype.”

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