Recently news of a new school opening in the general thereabouts of my old neighborhood in Los Angeles caught my eye. Our lively hyperlocal online news sources TheEastsiderLA.com, LA. Indymedia.com and EchoParkNow.com have covered news of the school opening with avid attention.
Here’s the scenario: a few years back, LAUSD exercised its eminent domain rights to construct a school in part of an Echo Park neighborhood that’s transected by the 101 Freeway. In the intervening time, after 50 families were uprooted and moved elsewhere, a $68.7 million school has been built on the site.
Just this past month, three proposals emerged for groups proposing to run the school. The new school stirred up much passion in the community; by one account 400 people showed up to have their say at a meeting for neighborhood residents to hear each plan presented and debated. A charter school chain, Camino Nuevo, also submitted a proposal to run the public school, which stirred up more heated discussion. The other two proposals, one offered by the teacher’s union, UTLA, and the other written by former teachers and community members but not affiliated with any union, seem to have eventually merged (or at least that was the discussion at the time–the story continues to unfold.)
Micki Curtis and Windy O’Malley were two mothers of school-aged children who hoped to send their kids to the school and wanted to affect the final vote, so they organized other parents and created a petition.
What follows below is an interview Windy kindly agreed to do with me over email. I cited portions of the petition she and Micki wrote, she responded; and in bold you’ll see additional questions I ask. I thought it might be of interest to other Los Angeles-area parents who are curious about the process of parent and neighborhood input in the selection of an entity to operate the school. In future interviews, I’ll also see if the drafters of the final plan can talk more about the technicalities of writing a proposal for an LAUSD school and reflect on that process.
Here’s Windy in her own words:
From the petition: “We are concerned parents who live close to new elementary and Middle school now called Cres #14. WE have followed the development of the school and the choice of what kind of School will inhabit the building come this August. After attending many community meetings and reading the two proposals we have to commit our full support to the Echo Park Community Partners Design Team. it is AN AMAZING school for OUR ENTIRE COMMUNITY. PLEASE CHOOSE the LD4 ECHO PARK COMMUNITY PARTNERS DESIGN TEAM PROPOSAL!”
K12NN: Can you tell us more about this group, its members, and how you arrived at the decision to support their proposal?
WO: I started attending community meeting regarding the new school last October. I was so impressed with the LD4 EPCP team, not because they were professional presenters or politicians but because they were teachers who loved our community and had a proposal that included our community and brought the greatest possible new learning techniques to it.
The LD4 EPCP team are for the most part amateur presenters (but well qualified and experienced educators) with heart. I could see them beam with hope and excitement when they talked about each aspect of the plan they had tirelessly and selflessly worked on. Janet Davis’ eyes actually light up when she speaks about how music will be an integral part of the school. She brings Cal-Arts and her own musical passion to the proposal and I see how her passion for music will translate to accessibility and education for the children.
Echo Park is one of the most diverse communities in Los Angeles. It has long been a home to artists and free thinkers. Yet the schools are all under-achieving, offering very little innovation and opportunities for the children who live here. The best programs and progressive learning techniques have only been offered to only the elite zip codes.
Petition: UTLA/Echo Park Community Partners
K12NN: Can you tell us more about this group, its members, and the differences between their proposal and the one you ultimately chose to support?
[updated to note: I think Windy O’Malley may have misunderstood my question, thinking that I asked about the difference between LD4 and Camino Nuevo, when in fact I was trying to get at the difference between LD4 and UTLA/Echo Park Community Partners.]
WO: Every LD4 EPCP person I have met has been an educator that lives in our area and has worked in an area school. They understand why the schools here have not done as well and what this community needs. Most of them are retired and are looking to give their very best to the community. I love that they have nothing to gain and have not been paid for any meeting or other forum where there was an opportunity to hear from and work with the community.
More than a few times they have spent a weekend walking around the businesses and homes of the school site talking to the community about their plan and gathering input. They really care about the community and are a part of it. Just today I was at the gym talking to a parent who lives in the area and all her children go to Alessandro Elementary.
When I mentioned that Ronnie Solmon was a part of the proposal team, she was so excited. She said Ronnie had worked at Allessandro for many years and was the very best example of an energetic and caring teacher. Cheryl Ortega is a neighborhood council member and deeply concerned about the neighborhood. She believes so completely about the dual-language program. Her passion alone has convinced me that it is imperative my children speak more than one language.
Scott Johnson is a teacher at Union Elementary and has his children in another Echo Park school, Elysian Heights. To my eyes, his intention is personal and considers all the children he loves so much who deserve better than what they have now.
I could go on and on… I also was impressed that all the members were bilingual when asked to translate at the meetings, especially Cheiko Rupp, who is from Japan. Mrs. Rupp was a principal and specializes in special needs. When she speaks about how this school will serve the special needs children and also integrate them with other children, I know that this school will be special and has the intention to be as effective and amazing as Chime Institute in Woodland Hills for example. Why is it that Woodland Hills, a very different demographic of mansions and the “haves”, has Chime Institute and its progressive approach? Don’t we deserve it too?
K12NN: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like there are a lot of commonalities between the UTLA proposal and the LD4 one. Is there any chance these groups might dovetail at some point?
WO: I see more differences than similarities. the LD4 EPCP proposal offers parent involvement in all aspects of the school. So much so that they have not even named the school, believing that the school should be named by its community, students, parents, teachers and administrators. It will be their school after all. There is a dual language component of Spanish and English. That program will be an option and also they could offer dual language of Tagalog or Korean, two other large groups that live in our area, if there is interest.
The arts and science component of their proposal in completely original and unlike anything in our community. The Tree People’s involvement, the environmental awareness and ecology is also not available in any other program. I actually spoke to a member of the development team working on the site and she promised the greenest innovation[s] were being considered for the facility. The community involvement, project based learning, multi-age classroom and team teaching are all innovations I have seen no where else in Echo Park and certainly not in the other proposal.
After reading Camino Nuevo’s proposal and hearing them speak many times, I have seen a very polished and glossy facade. I have noticed that CN actually adopted language and adapted their proposal after hearing the plans that LD4 EPCP had in place. I saw Ana Ponce change the proposal from only an elementary to a span [K-8] school, I saw her suddenly include partnerships with arts organizations that she had not mentioned before but the other team had.
I see that she is going to gain another public paid school property and the funds that goes with it. They already have five campuses, I saw bus loads of Camino Nuevo supporters show up to meetings and polling sites. I heard a rumor that the families who participated in the bus trips from out of our area to vote in our area were given gift cards. Who pays for the incentives? Who pays for the buses? In Camino Nuevo I see polish and talk but very little heart and selflessness.
Petition: “The problem is Camino Nuevo has a lot more support. They currently have 5 Existing Campuses near us why do they need a 6th? And even though I think it’s a good school for new immigrants it is not a true reflection of what we need in our changing community now and in our future. When asked about non-Spanish speakers learning at Camino Nuevo, Ana F. Ponce, the Director and CEO responded, “You have a choice not to attend Camino Nuevo if you don’t speak Spanish”. How is that legal to have a publicly funded school and administration that doesn’t serve the entire community? It is fine to have a charter that teaches whatever it wants in whatever way it professes, but this school Cress #14 will NOT BE A CHARTER, it will NOT BE A LOTTERY. It will be a neighborhood school entirely funded by the LAUSD via taxpayers and a Union LAUSD SCHOOL.”
K12NN: Can you talk more about how a full-immersion Spanish language program proposed by Camino Nuevo Charter differs from the dual-language approach the LD4 group proposes? Let us also know about the ethnic mix of the neighborhood.
WO: I think Janet, Julie or Cheryl of LD EPCP members would be better suited for the data. I could speak for my neighborhood that I love so so much. On my street I am the only English native speaker who is a home owner. I am surrounded by neighbors and their families who have lived here more than 30 years. My next door neighbor and substitute Abuela for my two daughters is Cuban. She immigrated and raised her three children here decades ago. She sent them to private school and they are all business owners who live on the East Coast. The other home owners and occupants on my block are Philippine, Korean, Vietnamese, Mexican American, and Central American. Some of my neighbors are teachers, firefighters, business owners, immigration officials, janitorial workers, independent day workers, and office workers.
I love this map of the demographics. It shows how diverse our neighborhood is. It shows that Echo park is what the future will be, a rainbow.
Petition: “Our neighboring schools are poor performing schools. Is it only Ivanhoe, Wonderland or Beverly Hills children that deserve a progressive and successful school? The Echo Park Community partners proposal will be a dual language program.”
K12NN: Please do elaborate on the API scores (plus any other way the neighboring schools are designated “poor-performing”) of other area schools. It’s also helpful to know what demographics are of the community that would be served, such as increases in numbers of children over the past several years, languages spoken, racial/ethnic background, etc.
WO: I refer this question to Janet. I will say though, our neighborhood schools may have great teachers but the LAUSD curriculum and policies have led our schools into low performance. The parents have not had the ability to privately fund programs which are cut or not approved. The arts are all but one and even the janitorial staff has been let go. The PILOT part of the proposal is one of the reasons the LD4 EPCP plan will succeed as a part of LAUSD.
The pilot program gives the autonomy and the LD4 Plan has already applied for grants and community support to create this dream school.
Petition: “Currently, every parent WE know who lives around here sends their children to private school or drives a distance to magnets and charters outside our area. There is NOTHING in our area for a GREAT education. This school could be the answer. The campus is there, the proposal there, the funding is there but we have to support it and vote for it or Camino Nuevo will get that amazing new state-of-the-art campus and in essence run a specialized charter program for only some of the community but completely funded by all of our community.”
K12NN: There is increasing attention paid to the struggle charter schools have with existing (or in this case, newly-built) public schools for space. Facilities in a city the size of Los Angeles are highly-prized and real estate and school construction is expensive. Please talk more about the disparity you see in taxpayers paying for a community school but not all members of the community using it.
WO: Because I live across the street from the School I have been aware of what this development has meant. over 50 homes were destroyed displacing over 200 community members and used over $65 million of our tax dollars. Why give a school built on the the backs of our community to someone else? This school and the new amazing facility is rightfully ours and should be for the community. How can we lose so much just to give it to a Charter who will not serve all our children?
Petition: “The school is at the junction of Sunset and Alvarado which has long been a topic of discussion as it a major intersection for commuters and is the on again off again boundary that is Silver Lake and Echo Park neighborhoods. WE URGE YOU TO please give us a reasonable boundary line drawn in a radius of the school so children can walk to school pre-k-8th grade and not BUS two and a half miles to King Middle school. Please include the other low performing area schools on the attendance area that are within walking distance. INCLUDING Mayberry, Logan and Michaeltorena . I promise you parents from Clifford, Elysian heights and Angelino Heights are also in need of a GOOD SCHOOL OPTION in our area.”
K12NN: The school boundary issue is an important one, as walkability and truly local attendees help root a school in its community. Can you tell us about efforts to connect with parents in these other adjoining neighborhoods, and the interest/support that you’ve seen from them? It’s also not immediately clear how, if Camino Neuvo operated out of the site, students from the community or outside the community would not be served. Can you clarify this?
WO: So far the boundary lines draws for this school are a disgrace as it will be impossible for children to cross the 101 freeway to “walk ” to school. As I live across the street and five doors down I do not lay within the attendance area. I hope to see that change and I hope for the ZONE of Choice initiative to be available to the actual immediate community.
Janet is best to answer as to how CN must adhere to the boundary lines. I will say though that CN already assumed a campus last year and after turning away many of the neighborhood students because it couldn’t serve them it opened up those spots for lottery.
K12NN: What’s your opinion of the process been, as you’ve watched and participated thus far? What would you change, and what do you like about it?
WO: I have been very discouraged by LAUSD to participate at all. My first and only letter to Mr. Cortines was very badly received. Here is his brief and only response:
“Thank you for submitting your letter of support. I appreciate your commitment to our schools. However, I want to make sure there is no misunderstanding that my recommendation for approving a school plan will be based on the objective review process we have established and not by the number of letters of support an applicant receives. I look forward to our continued partnership with you. Ramon C. Cortines”
I also have written Yoli Flores many times and Monica Garcia [LAUSD School Board members]. I have not received even one response. I feel that I am being ignored and silenced. I have been told by a former school board member that one reason I am not being heard is because I am white and the school board is afraid to seem to cater to me. I don’t want to be catered to, I want a voice. So far the community vote was disgraceful and response from my elected officials nil.
If I didn’t have the confidence to keep trying and hadn’t seen the courage the LD4 EPCP have, I would have already quit. I would like to see a better line of communication to all and please no racial profiling.
I also take offense to the assumption I am a wealthy white person looking for my own. I was born in El Paso and raised in Arizona. My family is very diverse and many of them are of Latino origin and Spanish is a language I grew up around. My perspective is one that I believe in public school and opportunities for all. I believe my daughters and their best friends, our neighbors, should be able to walk to school hand in hand. They should have the same opportunity for a GREAT education and future. Why is that only the truth for those in the Ivanhoe, or Wonderland area [two highly-regarded public elementary schools within city limits]?
K12NN: What have been the primary ways you have organized around this issue (social media, good old fashioned community meetings, informal coffee klatches, all of the above, etc)? Are you pulling in local parents of preschoolers? Are parents in the neighborhood who currently send their kids to private, magnet, and charter schools further away showing interest in switching to CRES #14?
WO: I am a part of two very supportive parent groups online that originated in my area. I first wrote to them and parents of my play groups and pre-schools to share information and gather support. I have found the most support from fellow parents who live in the area. Micki and I both live here and met at the library when our children were babies. We both became involved separately and found support with each other.
Then we met Gabriella from the online group and local parent and we were able to say let’s keep trying. We have reached out to our local community groups and organizations. We are hosting an “Information Party” this week with coffee and snacks in a child-friendly space so that more community members can ask questions and find out how to get involved to empower their own voice.
I have encouraged my neighbors to hear about both proposals because I want their genuine opinion, not one I have given them. I care deeply about our community and even though I am not in the attendance area, I am fighting for what I believe is right for our Echo Park children now and in the future.
K12NN: Can you talk briefly about your commitment to public education? There are so many choices out there, and different situations for different kids–in a single family it’s even possible to have one child in private, one in public, and one homeschooled depending on the individual child’s needs. Nevertheless, you’re obviously very committed to CRES #14 and I’d love to hear more about that as I find your activism really inspiring.
WO: My mother is a social worker and both of my in-laws are public school teachers — these three people have given their lives and hearts to children and helping them. They are the three most brilliant and selfless people I have ever known. As a child I would hear my mom up all hours of the night driving to go help an abused kid.
She is fluent in Spanish and to see her working with such dedication, I feel I grew up in the midst of a hero. My in-laws are equally dynamic and so intelligent. The fact that the State Math Champion and an English scholar decided to teach instead of more profitable professions, that they care so much for every student, whether it be a refugee from Somalia or a girl from the local reservation, they teach to each individual and try to help them on a path to higher education and a better life.
I also attended public school and my parents worked hard to get me in the only Fine Arts, Math & Science Magnet. I was so inspired by my teachers and the opportunities afforded to me. Thanks to Ms. Copley, Mrs. Husted, Ms. Crellin, Mr. Halfman and Mr and Mrs O’Malley, I not only was involved with acting and dance I graduated my high school with all of my college science and math courses completed.
I appreciated my fellow students, the innate tolerance and acceptance we experienced because we were one community from all over the city. I am grateful for the fact that I had no idea what true bigotry was until I grew up and saw more segregated communities where fear and loathing of the unknown is rampant. I live in Echo Park because of the diversity — THAT is the Los Angeles I am proud of and where I want my children to go to school.