Handful of LA County alternative schools saved from closing

Downey Community Day School was spared the budget ax.
Downey Community Day School was spared the budget ax.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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This week, the Los Angeles County Office of Education got ready to close more than two dozen schools that serve troubled teens. When word got out that budget cuts had forced the move, county supervisors and officials at the Office of Education got to work.

The work paid off. Officials delivered some good news to Downey Community Day School, a block north of the 105 Freeway in Downey. It's housed in a nondescript single-story office building next to a smog-check station.

"It’s one of our community day schools that was slated to close," said David Flores, the head of alternative schools for the L.A. County Office of Education.

This is one of 53 such campuses in the county that educate nearly 1,700 students who’ve been expelled, are on probation, or have serious behavior problems.

Administrators moved to close about half of the schools to solve a large funding deficit. After a news report of the impending closure, L.A. County officials urged administrators in the Office of Education to find a way to keep the schools open.

Flores said the students’ home school districts have agreed to foot the bill so three of the schools won’t close.

"We just got final agreement an hour or so ago that we’re going to keep it open. Our superintendent has been working very, very hard with the superintendents of the other districts to keep it open."

Flores is buzzed in through the locked doors and joins Principal Cathy Corella as she breaks the news to one of two classrooms. The students applaud.

Flores thanked Rudy Spivery, the class’s charismatic teacher. It costs more than $100,000 a year to run Downey Community Day School. Spivery became a vocal advocate who argued that every dollar spent on these classes was worth it.

"It wasn’t about me, it was about these kids, so we got a place for them. They had a lot of questions for you, so we thank you for coming in with that information and we thank you for believing in our kids," Spivery told the school officials and two dozen high school students sitting at their desks.

With less than an hour before dismissal, Spivery didn’t waste any time diving back into the English lesson for the day. Students take out dog-eared paperback copies of "The Soloist," about the friendship between L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez and homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers.

"C’mon guys, I don’t feel the energy. I don’t feel the energy. Who was Nathaniel Ayers?"

One student called out, "He was a bum." Another said, "He was a dropout from Julliard. He was schizophrenic." And with that Spivery mined the rest of the students' recollection of the non-fiction book.

Several students said the enthusiasm and positive affirmation in this class was absent at their previous schools. Twelfth-grader Crystal — officials asked that because of previous discipline only students' first names be used — said that in the eight months since enrolling here, she’s noticed that she looks at the world differently.

"Actually I wasn’t even thinking about graduating at all. I was just thinking about dropping out, you know, being lazy. But when I came here I actually thought about other things, too. I thought about going to college and following my dreams and pursuing things I wanted to do in life, and like travel the world. It sounds silly and everything, but I want to do all that," she said.

Earlier, Rudy Spivery had given his students some bad news: budget cuts at the L.A. County Office of Education meant he and nearly 80 other teachers will be laid off after this day.

"Today is ironic to me because I’m leaving my passion. That’s deep," he said as he asked students to say what they're passionate about.

The outlook is grim at some of L.A. County’s other alternative schools. Administrators are working to secure similar school district agreements to keep other campuses open. But nearly two dozen of the county schools are still set to shut their doors this week.