A vi­sion comes into fo­cus

Launched in 2013, Metro Char­ter has a ‘promis­ing fu­ture’

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - SANDY BANKS

What if you could cre­ate your dream school for your kids, one that’s high­tech and hands-on; di­verse and gen­teel; an ur­ban bee­hive of cre­ativ­ity with a sub­ur­ban sense of se­cu­rity?

That’s what a group of young up­scale par­ents in South Park set out to do three years ago. They loved their neigh­bor­hood’s edgy feel, but wanted some­thing for their chil­dren less gritty and more aca­dem­i­cally chal­leng­ing than the lo­cal skid row-ad­ja­cent el­e­men­tary school.

On park out­ings, dur­ing play dates and at din­ner

par­ties they drafted a 150page char­ter school pro­posal, which was ap­proved by the Los An­ge­les school board in 2013.

Their move to by­pass lo­cal schools didn’t sit well with some. Los An­ge­les has 264 pub­licly funded char­ter schools, more than any dis­trict in the coun­try; their pro­lif­er­a­tion and loose over­sight have been sore points.

De­trac­tors see them as a tool of union-bust­ing, cor­po­rate-driven re­form. Sup­port­ers say they re­flect par­ents’ hunger for public school choice. And I won­der how a move­ment that was once con­sid­ered a route to in­no­va­tion has be­come such a di­vi­sive force.

Steve Zim­mer, a teach­ers union ally, was the lone board mem­ber to vote against Metro Char­ter. He wor­ried that al­low­ing niche out­lets for new­com­ers might de­prive lo­cal schools of re­sources they need.

“When a neigh­bor­hood gen­tri­fies, one of the po­ten­tial great pos­i­tives is get­ting a di­verse group of par­ents en­gaged with our neigh­bor­hood public schools,” he said then. “And I worry that if ev­ery time a neigh­bor­hood gen­tri­fies, our re­sponse is to just cre­ate an­other char­ter school, we’re miss­ing a tremen­dous op­por­tu­nity.”

I wrote about Metro Char­ter when it was just a vi­sion. I vis­ited last week to see the re­al­ity.

Its cre­ators had six months to raise money, re­cruit stu­dents, hire teach­ers and find an empty space down­town that they could turn into a cam­pus. The school opened in Au­gust 2013 in class­rooms va­cated by a preschool on the Cal­i­for­nia Med­i­cal Cen­ter com­plex, just south of L.A. Live.

The founders had hoped for 100 stu­dents; 75 signed up. That made its L.A. Uni­fied over­seers a lit­tle con­cerned about fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity. But in its sec­ond year, en­roll­ment dou­bled to 150. Now there’s a wait­ing list for kinder­garten, plans to add fourth grade, and more than 60 new stu­dents en­rolled for this fall.

The stu­dent body was more di­verse than I ex­pected. Half the stu­dents qual­ify for free- or re­duced­priced lunches, a poverty in­di­ca­tor, and the school sub­si­dizes af­ter-school care for fam­i­lies who can’t af­ford it.

Dis­trict mon­i­tors now say that Metro Char­ter has a “promis­ing fu­ture” as a down­town op­tion. Its big­gest prob­lem may be find­ing a new space so it can keep grow­ing.

Ameni­ties are not a sell­ing point. The lunch room and yard are so small that stu­dents eat and play in shifts. When first-graders were asked to write es­says about what they would change on cam­pus, the most com­mon com­plaint was the cramped play­ground, fol­lowed by bath­room doors that don’t lock and rules against candy and gum.

The school is bright and clean, and class­rooms are hum­ming with en­ergy. Even kin­der­gart­ners use lap­tops — but they also use paint and mark­ers and glue sticks and se­quins and beads.

“I had to ed­u­cate par­ents, Prin­ci­pal Kim Clerx said. “We are not go­ing to be tra­di­tional. [Stu­dents] are go­ing be build­ing and tin­ker­ing and cre­at­ing. They’re not go­ing to be sit­ting nicely in rows.”

The halls are lined with es­says and art projects. First-graders con­duct de­bates and po­etry read­ings to prac­tice logic and public speak­ing. Kin­der­gart­ners study the ab­stract art of Kandin­sky to pre­pare for ge­om­e­try. Third-graders ride public buses to Chi­na­town and Olvera Street, then write es­says com­par­ing and con­trast­ing the two cul­tures.

And par­ents get plenty of chances to vol­un­teer.

Metro Char­ter is on its sec­ond prin­ci­pal; the first one, cam­pus board mem­bers told me, didn’t work out.

That made the value of be­ing an in­de­pen­dent char­ter un­de­ni­ably clear.

“If we were [part of] L.A. Uni­fied, they would have just sent us some­body, any­body,” said Mike McGal­liard, one of the founders. In­stead, the school’s gov­ern­ing board was able to hire Clerx from the Lawn­dale school dis­trict, where her spe­cialty was the pro­ject­based ap­proach to learn­ing that Metro Char­ter’s cur­ricu­lum is built around.

That sort of flex­i­bil­ity can make a lot of dif­fer­ence. Schools work bet­ter when ev­ery­one’s pulling in the same di­rec­tion.

That’s what im­pressed me most on my visit to Metro Char­ter. Par­ents, teach­ers and school lead­ers seem to share a vi­sion and a sense of en­thu­si­asm that can’t help but trickle into the class­room.

It hasn’t been an easy two years; it’s hard to cre­ate a school from scratch and keep it run­ning smoothly. And what the Metro Char­ter founders seem to be most proud of is not the school’s sin­gu­lar mission, but its broad di­ver­sity.

Some of them had wres­tled with doubts dur­ing its early days. Were they closet elit­ists — or just com­mit­ted par­ents do­ing the best thing for their chil­dren?

McGal­liard had spent years at the helm of LA’s Prom­ise, a non­profit that aims to im­prove in­ner-city schools. Now he sits com­fort­ably on the board of Metro Char­ter, where his only child just fin­ished first grade.

“I’d made a vow not to get into char­ter schools,” he re­called. “That lasted un­til I had a daugh­ter.”

Katie Falken­berg Los An­ge­les Times

TEACHER MICHELLE LEE, cen­ter, works with stu­dents who have ac­cess to com­put­ers but who also use glue sticks, mark­ers and paint.

Katie Falken­berg Los An­ge­les Times

STU­DENTS LINE UP for lunch. Par­ents wanted some­thing more aca­dem­i­cally chal­leng­ing than the skid row-ad­ja­cent el­e­men­tary school.

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