Exclusive: Charter school gives up the fight and will close after years of battling LAUSD for classroom space
Sarah Favot | April 5, 2017
A charter school that was repeatedly denied classroom space in its neighborhood by LA Unified is giving up the fight and will close in June.
Westchester Secondary Charter School has operated in three sites during its four years and has never been granted district space in the west side community where its founding families and teachers live, even after suing the district.
After failing to meet enrollment targets, its renewal petition was turned down Tuesday by LA County’s Board of Education. School leaders have decided not to appeal to the state, in part because they continue to lose students because of the frequent moves.
The school’s enrollment, now 211 students in grades 6 through 12, more than half of whom are African-American, has dwindled as the school was repeatedly denied space in Westchester, near LAX airport. It moved this year to a middle school in South Los Angeles near the 110 freeway.
Fourteen seniors will be the school’s first and only graduating class.
LACOE’s recommendation to deny the school’s petition renewal cited concerns about high suspension rates and students not meeting academic benchmarks. Parents and the principal say the school’s facilities issues have contributed to academic challenges.
But by far the issue that killed it is the fight for space, according to parents and the principal. And the person they hold responsible is Steve Zimmer, who is in a heated election battle for his seat on LA Unified’s school board. Anger over Prop. 39 co-locations has fueled much of the opposition to Zimmer’s re-election bid.
“From our initial outset we’ve been obstructed by Mr. Zimmer,” Westchester Secondary Charter School Principal Janet Landon said Wednesday. “He’s made false claims that he’s been trying to help us when that was far from the truth.”
“(The district has) misrepresented the space availability so that we could not meet the needs of our charter, as a result we’ve just been on the edge from year to year.” she said. “Our instability regarding facilities certainly made our enrollment very challenging, I personally think that was the big factor in our denial.”
Zimmer said Wednesday morning that “any perceptions of interference in the Prop. 39 process or unfair treatment is categorically not true.” Prop. 39 is the state law that requires school districts to offer unused space to charters.
“There is simply not the animus from me or LAUSD that is alleged,” Zimmer said, adding that he heard parents were happy with the educational program at Westchester Secondary.
“While I recognize and feel badly that it is a burden to have a co-location that is a greater distance for many of the families, that is not unique to this school,” Zimmer said. “It’s the same with schools of choice, magnets, dual immersion programs, and schools for advanced studies. Families make these choices and that includes issues of transportation and proximity and that is not unique to Westchester Secondary. There is simply no more space in Westchester.”
Nick Melvoin, who is challenging Zimmer in the May 16 runoff and has wide support in the charter school community, was unavailable for an interview but sent a statement saying his thoughts were with the families who have been uprooted from Westchester Secondary and a pilot school called Incubator in Westchester that will also close at the end of the year.
“While LACOE made this decision, Westchester Secondary Charter has fallen victim to poor LAUSD School Board management,” Melvoin said. “Many of the issues they now face stem from a mismanaged and dishonest co-location process that kept them from permanent facilities. I want to bring more transparency on the school board to reduce conflicts over facilities and ensure both district and LAUSD charter schools have the space they need to thrive and serve our communities.”
The school informed parents Wednesday of its decision to close. Landon said they decided not to appeal to the state because the next meeting that the state board could consider an appeal, due to deadlines, would be in September after the start of the school year.
“We could appeal in September and then reopen in the following school year, but I have no reason to believe, certainly, if Mr. Zimmer gets re-elected, it would work,” she said.
Landon said the school requested space at Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets (the former Westchester High School) and at one time heard from the district that they could move there, but the offer was withdrawn after a couple of days. The timing of the offer coincided with a trip that Zimmer took to Washington, D.C., Landon said, and she had “healthy reason to believe” that Zimmer interfered when he returned to LA.
Another time when the school requested space at Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets, they were told it was unavailable to them. However, the magnet campus is now going to house a STEM school that is a partnership between LA Unified and Loyola Marymount University.
Lisa Rowley, whose sons are in 9th and 11th grade at Westchester Secondary and have been there since it opened, blamed Zimmer for many of the school’s challenges.
“He specifically made it clear that he wasn’t going to welcome our charter anywhere near his district,” she said. She said Zimmer refused to meet with her and other parents this year.
“I can’t figure out why he refused to meet with us again other than he just doesn’t want to be cooperative,” she said. “Public school is public school. I’m a constituent of his district.” She said she voted for Melvoin.
Although the school has had challenges with facilities, Rowley said the school is the best fit for her sons who both have special needs.
Her youngest son was planning to attend Venice High School’s STEMM magnet next school year, but she said her oldest son wanted to graduate from Westchester Secondary, so he didn’t have a “Plan B.” She said she filed an application Wednesday for her son to be wait listed for senior year at Venice High, which will depend on availability.
“I’m really stuck,” she said.
The California Charter Schools Association has also filed lawsuits against the district regarding Prop. 39.
“Westchester has certainly endured pushback and backroom manipulation from the district and from their board member, Steve Zimmer, in their effort to try to find a home,” CCSA spokesman Jason Mandell said in a statement. “They’re not alone unfortunately, especially on the west side, where politics continues to prevent families from having access to more quality school options — especially high schools. Until LAUSD agrees to be transparent about its available space, which other major urban districts like New York have been doing for years — families will continue to be at the mercy of a shadowy process that too often gets hijacked by petty political power struggles.”
In 2012, the LA Unified school board denied on a consent vote the school’s initial petition; all 11 other charter petitions were approved at that meeting. The school appealed to LACOE, which authorized its charter, but the school did not open until 2013. It started out at a private space at Westchester Community Church where it stayed for two years until the building was sold. In its third year, it moved to First Baptist Church.
The school’s requests for space under Prop. 39 in Westchester were denied. The district offered the charter school space at Crenshaw High School, but Landon said the space was on the second floor of an administrative building where they wouldn’t have their own entrance, so they declined the offer. The next year the district again offered Crenshaw High School, but it did not specify what space Westchester Secondary would receive, so the offer was denied, Landon said. Last year, it moved to Horace Mann, a middle school in South LA, where it has its own building.
The school also took the aggressive step of filing a lawsuit in 2014 against the district over its co-location battle. A state court of appeal sided with the district in June 2015 saying that the district did not have to find space in the school or schools that the charter wanted, but would “make reasonable efforts to provide the charter school with facilities near to where the charter school wishes to locate.” As to location, the court noted that “near” is a flexible concept.
Landon said after the move to Mann only 25 percent of the families stayed with the school and she lost about half her teachers. The student population changed from serving about 30 percent socially and economically disadvantaged students to 65 percent.
About 17 percent of students require special education services, above the average for district and charter schools. She said many of the families who have children with special needs have stayed with the school since it opened.
After moving to South LA, Landon said it was difficult to recruit students and get the community to trust her because she and the school didn’t have a track record in the community. A former drama teacher at Orville Wright Middle School before she opened the school, she had connections in Westchester.
In its recommendation to deny Westchester Secondary’s renewal petition, the LACOE Charter Division found that there was an “unsound educational program” at the school, students’ academic performance fell below other students who are served in the area, and that a student at Westchester Secondary is 25 times more likely to get suspended than a student in LA Unified. The district has drastically cut suspensions through a new discipline policy.
In August 2015 the county board approved a revision that reduced Westchester Secondary’s enrollment targets by 25 percent, but the school was unable to meet those numbers and is currently under-enrolled by more than 59 percent below its target.
Landon took issue with many of the criticisms in the LACOE report. (Her response can be found here).
“Data can be skewed in a lot of different ways,” she said.
Because the student population changed drastically, there wasn’t a cohort to compare academic data, she said.
She shared data that showed Westchester Secondary’s middle school students outperform area schools on math, English and science assessments. The school’s high school students outperformed area schools in science exams.
When it comes to suspensions, she said charter school parents expect if there is an act of violence against a victim that there are consequences. She said the school has several types of interventions before students are suspended and that it is a small group of students who account for the majority of suspensions.
“Putting us here at Mann, I had a suspicion that it would kill us and it did,” she said.
Staff writer Mike Szymanski contributed to this article.