Why an organization once seen as LA Unified's biggest threat now plans to give money to LAUSD schools

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In late January, a mere three weeks into her tenure as Los Angeles Unified School District's superintendent, Michelle King welcomed two surprising guests into her office: representatives of the non-profit group that sprouted from the controversial "Great Public Schools Now" plan.

Since it was leaked to the press four months earlier, the document had been a lingering source of tension in the district. Backed by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and other deep-pocketed charter school supporters, the plan had called for doubling the number of charter seats in Los Angeles.

When King took office in mid-January, L.A. Unified School Board members had just voted to denounce the plan as a potentially existential threat to the district's enrollment and finances.

But King had taken a more measured stance on the plan — and leaders of the newly-formed Great Public Schools Now were eager to move past the controversy and find ways to collaborate with L.A. Unified.

So on Jan. 23, at 1 o'clock, Great Public Schools Now's executive director Myrna Castrejón and board president William Siart met with King for an hour in her office, according to a copy of the superintendent's schedule KPCC obtained through a public records request. They spent most of the meeting getting to know each other, Castrejón remembered.

But Castrejón said, at this meeting, she and King did discuss one concrete idea for the first time: Great Public Schools Now should find a way to fund L.A. Unified campuses.

Nearly nine months after that meeting — just two weeks ago — Great Public Schools Now announced plans to make that idea a reality in the form of a $3.75 million grant competition for L.A. Unified schools.

Now, the district and the organization must hammer out the details — and in doing so, Great Public Schools Now leaders will have to win over skeptics who still distrust the organization's motives.

Through the competition, Great Public Schools Now has promised to award three-year grants of up $750,000 to help five district schools grow or expand. The competition's guidelines favor schools with already-strong test scores in 10 target neighborhoods the non-profit says are most under-served.

To Castrejón, the L.A. Unified grant program is a "turning point in the conversation," underscoring a point she's tried to hammer home since Great Public Schools Now incorporated as a non-profit: Unlike the effort outlined in that early leaked draft, the organization plans to support charter and non-charter schools.

"What we saw a year and some months ago is not what the organization is doing today, and I’m pleased about that," said L.A. Unified board member Ref Rodriguez. "The early version of [the Broad plan] was a mistake, honestly … This new plan, the approach of just getting more quality seats, no matter who’s governing them, is something that I think is the right path forward."

The Great Public Schools Now initiative also aligns with one of King's stated goals: to expand the menu of school choices in L.A. Unified by expanding the popular themed "pathways" — from magnets and language immersion schools to pilot programs — in an effort to convince students and parents to remain in the district.

But school board president Steve Zimmer said he still harbors doubts about Great Public Schools Now's ultimate intentions.

Great Public Schools Now's funders — such as Broad and the Walton Family Foundation — certainly have the capacity to give much more than $3.75 million, and Zimmer said he can't support the organization until it's clear their contributions to L.A. Unified are not "window dressing to a catastrophe."

"I'm concerned," Zimmer explained, "that there's going to be a small investment in LAUSD and a large investment in charter expansion, and somehow the proponents of this are going to be able to say, 'We support all schools,' by identifying a small number of LAUSD schools they deem worthy of support. My philosophy is every school is worthy of support and investment."

In June, Great Public Schools Now's first round of grants did not directly benefit L.A. Unified. The Equitas charter school, the local chapter of Teach for America and an afterschool program, Heart of L.A., split a total of $4.5 million.

Charter schools are excluded from applying for Great Public Schools Now's L.A. Unified grant. But while there are more than 900 non-charter schools and programs in L.A. Unified, few of these meet the grant's guidelines either.

For a school to qualify for the grant, more than 50 percent of its students must have scored as "meeting standards" on either California's statewide math or English exams last year, according to the request for proposals. Applicant schools must also be either currently located in one of its 10 target neighborhoods — essentially the east San Fernando Valley as well as much of South and East L.A.

In addition, Great Public Schools Now will "focus on investing in schools" where at least 80 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunches and will "only fund programs" that enroll special education and English Learner students at rates comparable to district averages.

To determine which district programs could be in an applicant pool for the Great Public Schools Now grant, KPCC analyzed L.A. Unified data and found 32 schools

  • where 50 percent of students scored as proficient on state tests,
  • where 80 percent of students eat free or reduced price meals,
  • that are located in the 10 target neighborhoods, and
  • where English Learners make up at least 5 percent of the student population.

However, this count of 32 schools does not factor in Great Public Schools Now's preference for funding schools "where leaders will have the autonomy to select and retain their teaching staffs." 

And Castrejón said some of the application criteria will likely be flexible.

The test score criteria, she said, will be the most rigid. But if a school doesn't meet the 50 percent mark, it might be eligible if its scores are "significantly better" than nearby public schools, whether charter or district-run.

Castrejón also said high-performing programs from outside Great Public Schools Now's target neighborhoods can also qualify for the grants if they propose to expand their operations the East Valley or South and East L.A.

"We don't want to be so narrow and rigid that only a very, very narrow set of schools meets the box," she said, "but we also want to challenge folks to understand that success is possible and point to where success is occurring" and create "incentives" for schools to replicate the practices that make those schools successful.

But if the criteria define an applicant pool this small, doesn't that suggest Great Public Schools Now leaders already know which schools they want to fund?

Castrejón responded that some already-high-performing schools might not be interested in applying. School leaders will have to demonstrate they have a strong vision for how to spend the grant money — and that's not an application guideline Great Public Schools Now can quantify at the outset.

"We're trying to be really, really clear on parameters and on vision and on expectation," she said, "but also fairly open about being willing to entertain a thoughtful conversation with folks who want to do things."

Great Public Schools Now's board will make the final decision about which L.A. Unified programs will win the grants. But an advisory panel that includes district officials will also weigh in and make recommendations after schools submit final grant applications in mid-February.

"Superintendent King has had ongoing discussions with [Great Public Schools Now] and they seem amenable to taking our suggestions," said Christopher Downing, a regional superintendent for the portion of L.A. Unified stretching from Watts to San Pedro. He said most of the conversations district officials have had with Great Public Schools Now so far have been preliminary and broad.

Board president Steve Zimmer said the notion of replicating already-successful program grates against his notions of how public education ought to operate.

"In public education, we have to be in the business of improving outcomes for all kids," he said. "That's what I'm interested in. That's what I still do not see from Great Public Schools Now."

Even as Great Public Schools Now plans to give to L.A. Unified, Zimmer still hearkened back to the plan that spawned the non-profit in the first place.

"Until there's a clear indicator there's not going to be a large-scale investment in trying to exponentially expand and increase charter schools in Los Angeles," Zimmer said, "this is not something I can be supportive of."

The audio for this story uses an effect from Freesound database user 'Samulis.'

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