Photo: Alex MacInnis
Micheltorena Elementary School, home of the eagles, and founded in 1905.
Micheltorena Elementary School has been around for more than one hundred years. It sits just off Sunset Blvd. in the hills of Silver Lake: a two-story building behind a line of tall trees.
For the most part parents are happy with the school. "My kids love it. The staff is very friendly," said parent Sandra Chavez Ruiz. "Teachers have been awesome. The arts program, we have an excellent garden. A brand new library. They have cooking classes, chess, poetry…"
Parents give a lot of the credit to the principal, who took over five years ago. She's actively solicited parent ideas and involvement, but now these parents are upset about a plan to offer part of Micheltorena's campus to a new charter school, called Citizens of the World.
Putting two separate schools on one campus is an arrangement known as a "colocation."
"I'm used to having my voice being listened to at LAUSD, at school meetings. I feel like my opinion is very important," said PTA President Rebecca Crane. "However, with this charter colocation our opinion has never -- in my opinion -- has never been solicited. And that I feel is wrong."
Charter schools were granted rights to public school facilities through Proposition 39, which was passed by California voters 12 years ago. The goal was to raise money for schools, but few people realized one of its provisions meant that any empty classrooms must be turned over to any charter that asks. Neither parents and the principal nor the school board itself can legally refuse.
With nowhere else to turn, the Micheltorena parents took their grievances to the March meeting of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, which happens to meet in the school's auditorium. The council was urged to pass a symbolic motion opposing the colocation.
So, what's the problem? Why not share the campus? Here's a few things the parents say.
The charter was offered eight classrooms that are "temporary" buildings added during the peak of overcrowding. They are currently used for a variety of special programs. Micheltorena had hoped to use some for a bilingual kindergarten they're starting this fall.
They're afraid of getting stuck with a bad housemate. They distrust the charter, saying Citizens of the World won't talk to them. The charter wasn't able to schedule an interview for this story.
But a lot of their concern involves an ongoing PR struggle. Micheltorena has low test scores, in part because of its special ed program. The affluent families moving into Silver Lake are largely avoiding the school, despite all the improvements of the last few years.
"Our enrollment is already starting to drop and with a charter school moving onto our campus," said Crane. "I felt distinctly that this might push enrollment even lower and spell the end of our campus as it is today."
Dan Kreinbring is Statewide Facilities Advisor for the California Charter School Association. He's eager to move beyond Prop 39, since those requests have to be resubmitted each year, providing charters little sense of permanence or ability to plan ahead.
"We do not know how the district determines which school is going to get which campus," said Kreinbring. "Only they make that determination. So we are not part of that process. We would like to be part of that process."
The number of colocations in LAUSD doubled this school year, after the California Charter School Association sued the district for dodging its Prop 39 requirements. Kreinbring criticizes LAUSD for relying so heavily on colocations--which clearly aren't great for either party. But the number of seats charters are requesting from LA Unified is larger than the entire Pasadena school district. The LAUSD Director of Charter Schools, José Cole-Gutiérrez, insists L.A. is left with few other ways to meet the demand.
"With a request for 25,000 seats annually, that translates into a lot of colocations," said Cole-Gutiérrez. "It necessitates a deep look on a year-to-year basis and it becomes challenging when the scale is comparable to another small school district."
Dr. John Rogers, director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, says charters were originally conceived as small, experimental stations that could develop ideas to then be used by the public education system as a whole.
"I don't think anyone forsaw that they would be a substantial proportion of your overall system of public education," said Rogers. "And now we're reaching that point and our structure of policies doesn't really have the regulations in place to deal with this new reality."
Rogers suggests the charter movement may have painted itself into a corner by growing around the idea that improvement comes through competition.
"That competition model is very different from the collaboration that charter schools are now seeking as they try to colocate with the traditional public schools, and the traditional public schools, the residents of the community, the educators, often feel like, hey, you've been saying we're your competitors, we're trying to change you, now you're coming in and saying lets play together, and I think those two messages don't cohere and it creates tension that needs to be resolved," said Rogers.
May 1st is the deadline for about 60 charters to accept or decline their offers from LAUSD. Parents will finally know where the next step in their child's education will take place, and who their neighbors will be.
Until the process begins again next year.