In Partnership with The 74

CHIME leader hopeful expansion plans in West Valley won’t be sidetracked like El Camino’s

Craig Clough | March 25, 2016



The Highlander Road Elementary School campus in West Hills has been closed since 1982 and fallen into disrepair.

The Highlander Road Elementary School campus in West Hills has been closed since 1982. It is one of three sites for proposed high schools in the West Valley.

Despite the LA Unified school board reversing itself and denying El Camino Real High School’s attempts to develop two long-closed elementary school campuses in the west San Fernando Valley, the leader of the CHIME Institute told LA School Report he is not concerned the board will shut down his school’s plan to develop another closed campus in the area.

“We still are very much pursuing our goal and would like to open as soon as possible,” said CHIME’s executive director, Erin Studer. “It didn’t happen as soon as we liked — we didn’t open in 2016 — but these are big undertakings to launch a highly successful high school program and to redevelop a district campus that has sat vacant for over 30 years.”

CHIME’s effort to redevelop Collins Elementary into a high school goes back to April 2014, when the LA Unified school board named it the preferred developer of the site, which has sat vacant since the 1980s along with three other district campuses in the West Valley. El Camino Real High School was named the preferred developer of the other three sites at the time. All four of the campuses have fallen into disrepair, and most if not all of the buildings would need to be torn down or significantly renovated, district officials have said. Both schools had written up plans in response to a request for proposal from the district.

CHIME operates a K-8 charter campus in Woodland Hills focused on an inclusive model of learning, which puts special needs and gifted students in the same classroom, and was recently named one of the Charter Schools of the Year by the California Charter Schools Association.

The estimated cost for redeveloping Collins is $12 million and would be paid for by funds raised by CHIME and with Charter Augmentation Grants, which is district bond money set aside specifically for charter school development.

For years and as late as last October, LA Unified officials repeatedly said the district had no enrollment need in the West Valley for new schools and no money to build them. But that changed in November when El Camino approached the board for approval of two charters at the closed Oso and Highlander campuses. The district suddenly had found a need for the campuses, and in November denied the application for Oso in favor of a new magnet school and in January denied the application for Highlander in favor of an expansion of Hale Charter Academy, an affiliated district charter school.

The moves by the board were unexpected because LA Unified has no current plans to build any new schools in the district and little bond money to do so. With an estimated $60 billion needed to repair and modernize its existing campuses and only $7.8 billion in available bond funds, the district would need to cancel renovation projects to clear budget room for the new schools, LA Unified Chief Facilities Executive Mark Hovatter told the board in January.

The district has so far run into significant neighborhood opposition with its plans to convert Highlander into a high school, as some homeowners in the area were opposed to the increased traffic and other issues a high school can bring to the neighborhood. So far, three of the four plans for the closed campuses involve converting a former elementary school into a high school. A fourth site, Platt Ranch, is still in development by El Camino but will likely be a proposal for a K-8 school.

Studer said he has closely watched the developments with El Camino but still believes CHIME will be able to move forward and not experience the same reversal of its own plans.

“I certainly watched it and continue to have conversations with our district partners, letting them know that we are still on track and moving forward with our plans, and are hopeful that they remain in alignment with our plans,” Studer said. “I think at the end of the day the district was clear about why they reversed course with El Camino and it was that they wanted to pursue some program growth of their own on those two campuses, Oso and Highlander, in the West Valley, but my guess is if they have sort of taken on launching those two programs, that’s probably as much program growth as they can sustain at this time, so I wouldn’t anticipate them coming up with yet another program that they would add to Collins.”

Studer said CHIME has held two community meetings about the campus and plans on approaching the board for approval of its charter in the late summer or early fall.

“It is a lot of ducks to line up, and we are doing that in partnership with LAUSD, and I think that this is something that at the end of the day is going to be a program and a campus that the charter world is extremely proud of and that LAUSD is extremely proud to authorize,” Studer said.

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