After teachers union protest, tensions rise on shared LAUSD-charter campus

Maisha Riley, school leader at Community Preparatory Academy, a charter school, pulls from her trunk a stack of protest signs left along the fence of the L.A. Unified campus in Carson where they're co-located.
Maisha Riley, school leader at Community Preparatory Academy, a charter school, pulls from her trunk a stack of protest signs left along the fence of the L.A. Unified campus in Carson where they're co-located. Kyle Stokes/KPCC

It wasn't until students at Community Preparatory Academy ran out to the playground on Wednesday morning that their teacher noticed the posters — dozens of signs hanging on the school’s perimeter fence, facing inward so kids and staff could read them.

“We Can’t Grow, So Charter Must Go,” one read. The teacher sent the kids elsewhere to play.

CPA, a charter school in Carson, occupies a corner of Ambler Ave. Elementary, sharing that playground on the L.A. Unified campus. The charter school’s co-leader, Maisha Riley, said the signs appeared after a rally outside Ambler on Wednesday morning, one of more than 150 organized by United Teachers Los Angeles.

Though many of the 150 rallies UTLA held on Wednesday took place at campuses that host co-located charters, the union's talking points also called for lower class sizes and more counselors and nurses. UTLA spokesperson Ana Bakalis said in an e-mail the intention of Wednesday's rallies "was not to target charter schools."

But perhaps 100 yards from the rooms CPA occupies at Ambler, Riley took down protest signs with messages that read, "It's Not Fair That We Have To Share."

"I think the staff or the UTLA folks on this campus used this as an opportunity to vent and talk about things that they were already feeling," said Janis Bucknor, also co-leader of CPA.

Ambler Avenue Elementary staff did not respond to KPCC's request for comment.

In a statement, L.A. Unified spokesperson Shannon Haber said district officials "take seriously all complaints and our staff will fully investigate these concerns."

Charter school co-locations appear to be the latest flashpoint in the ongoing political battle between charter schools and L.A.'s teachers union.

UTLA says its beef is really with L.A. Unified, which is compelled under the state law known as Proposition 39 to accommodate charter schools who wish to share space. But teachers union's leaders said charter schools game the system, over-estimating how much space they need and the district has failed to levy financial penalties against them — penalties the union claims would climb into the millions.

"Collecting these monies is not only the right thing to do," UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl wrote, "it is also a crucial step in the movement toward standards for all publicly funded schools, and it is a critical down payment toward class-size reduction and increases in staffing in LAUSD schools."

Co-locations are often the most expedient way for a charter school to find classroom space in a market where real estate prices are high and public funds for charters to construct their own buildings are hard to find. Some co-locations are peaceful and mutually-beneficial.

Obviously, the co-location arrangement at Ambler has not gone well.

Riley said Ambler and CPA staff have disagreed over how to share common spaces on the campus. And the students are getting in on it. Riley and other charter staff said fighting and bullying between CPA and Ambler students has become a daily occurrence as the year’s worn on.

 

"Our kids take off their CPA uniform shirts to go into the after-school program with the after-school program with the Ambler kids so they don’t get teased,” Riley said. "There were already things like that that were happening. The protest just made it so clear as to how much we are despised.”

But “the protest,” Riley said, "just made it so much worse.”

The California Charter Schools Association had worried charter students would end up the target of the protests. Earlier this week, the association delivered a petition to UTLA leaders with more than 500 signatures asking them to keep their protests away from the charters on co-located sites.

Riley said after the protest signs appeared, the CPA students were riled enough that she asked them to stop what they were doing and encouraged them to write down their reactions. That has been CPA staff's go-to method for helping their students vent.

One student wrote Ambler students told her, "F this school. They said they want us to f-ing leave … I hate them."

L.A. Unified School Police met briefly with Riley and posted a safety officer at CPA on Friday. She said she met with L.A. Unified officials to share her concerns.

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