New LA Unified schools open under Public School Choice initiative

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Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa speaks to Ana Ponce, CEO of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy. The group will run one of dozens of new and low performing campuses free of school district control.

Starting this week the curtain rises on one of the most significant reforms at the Los Angeles Unified School District in more than a decade. L.A. Unified’s handed the administration of dozens of new and low-performing schools to outside nonprofits and teacher groups that will try new plans to better educate kids.

The students at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, north of USC, didn’t expect such a high-profile visitor on their first day of classes.

"Alcalde Villaraigosa," says a boy when asked the name of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor is one of the biggest cheerleaders for L.A. Unified’s Public Schools Choice reform program.

"It stands for the proposition that new schools and schools that are currently failing, among the lower-decile schools, ought to be able to make a choice about whether or not they’ll continue the status quo or engage in the kind of innovation and transformative reform that you see at Camino Nuevo," Villaraigosa said.

The ten-year-old Camino Nuevo organization beat out proposals by United Teachers Los Angeles and an after-school nonprofit. Almost all students at this newly built campus come from Spanish-speaking immigrant families.

"We have a longer school year and a longer school day," said Camino Nuevo chief Ana Ponce, "we have a very customized curriculum that the teachers develop annually and tweak annually to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of the kids.

"We also have a very rigorous assessment program to make sure that we’re monitoring the progress of every single child in the school and that we are intervening earlier rather than later."

Teachers at this campus also use a bilingual curriculum.

Some campuses, like this charter, are completely autonomous from L.A. Unified. Others, run under the so-called pilot school model, boast of a slimmed-down teacher contract that allows them to review hires every school year. That model’s unpopular with United Teachers Los Angeles. Other public school choice campuses operate under reform plans the school’s teachers have written.

Miriam Lopez said the Camino Nuevo campus generated a buzz in her Koreatown neighborhood. "My son's previous school was good but I can see that this one is more rigorous," she said.

This and another couple of dozen public school choice campuses are a large-scale experiment in school reform that L.A. Unified administrators say is still a work in progress. The next big task, they say, is to get the interested parties to agree on a list of data that’ll periodically measure whether this reform experiment is working.

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