New downtown charter school raises questions about gentrification, diversity

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Downtown LA’s population has more than quadrupled in the past decade. Many of the new arrivals are families with young children, and they say there aren’t enough good public schools in the area.

Last year, a group of downtown parents decided to start their own elementary school. Metro Charter was approved by the LA school board this month and is scheduled to open in the fall.

But did the parents behind Metro Charter give a fair shake to the schools that already serve downtown?

David Chun and his wife have a five-year-old daughter. But when they moved to South Park in 2005, they weren’t thinking about schools. The downtown LA neighborhood was in the middle of transforming from industrial to the hip place it is today, with the LA Live entertainment complex, upscale restaurants and luxury loft apartments and condominiums.

7350571878_f51b5da669“A couple years ago I think, my wife and I started to experience a sense of panic, because we were looking at, you know, the price of private school, what our public school options were,” Chun said. “When we realized that we may have to leave downtown, we just started going through this process of ‘what can we do?’”

Chun started talking to other parents who took their kids to the Grand Hope Park playground on weekends. Many of them were newcomers to South Park. They were a professional crowd, they all had toddlers, and they were all freaked out. They wanted to send their kids to a good public school but weren’t happy with the closest one, Ninth Street Elementary.

“When we weighed options as parents, the school was performing at a level that’s not high enough for us,” said Mike McGalliard, one of those playground parents. “We’d love to see it do better, but we wanted an option that – you know, we don’t want to reform the school that our children are going to. We want a good school for our children to go to, and we want the same thing for all of our neighbors.”

charter2So Chun, McGalliard and four other families decided to start their own school. Over the past year, playground conversations turned into real meetings in each other’s offices and lofts, and now it looks like they’ll get a real school. Metro Charter was just approved by the Los Angeles Unified School District board. The school is expected to open in the fall. Parents say they want a curriculum focused on basics like reading and math, but also like arts, environmental studies and health.

The parents who spearheaded Metro Charter say it’s a milestone for downtown. “It’s transitioning from a transition neighborhood to a place where people really want to come and stay and make a home for themselves, and I think a school is really needed to make that happen,” said Chinmaya Misra, one of the mothers.

Downtown City Councilman and former school board member Jose Huizar agrees. “Ten years ago, we had about 10,000 people that called downtown home. Today there are about 50,000 people who live downtown, but there’s a great need for public amenities,” Huizar said. “So this was critically important.”

But there are critics. School board member Steve Zimmer cast the only “no” vote against Metro Charter’s approval. He said it’s because the charter application didn’t talk about how the school would handle downtown’s homeless students. He also has other concerns. “When a neighborhood gentrifies, one of the potential great positives is getting a diverse group of parents engaged with our neighborhood public schools,” Zimmer said. “And I worry that if every time a neighborhood gentrifies, our response is just to create another new charter school, we’re missing a tremendous opportunity.”

charter3Ninth Street Elementary isn’t the only public school near South Park. There’s another charter school, Para Los Ninos, a couple of miles away. Students there are mostly Latino, and nearly all at or below the poverty line. Their parents are mostly workers in downtown’s garment, produce and flower districts. The school’s curriculum is similar to what’s planned for Metro Charter, according to Para Los Ninos president and CEO Martine Singer.

“You know, it was interesting to me that things they want in a school are things we’re already doing,” Singer said. “Even sort of architecturally, it feels like a progressive private school on the Westside. I think a lot of the parents from Metro are talking about a very similar kind of instructional approach with their own students. They may not know that we’re already doing it.”

charter4Still, Singer says she welcomes another nearby charter school. And Para Los Ninos’ waiting list is too long to accommodate the 150 students Metro’s organizers expect to open with. The Metro Charter parents say their school will be economically diverse. They plan to hold town hall meetings, visit neighborhood groups and send out mailers to recruit students not just from South Park but less gentrified neighborhoods nearby like Chinatown, Pico-Union and Skid Row. Parent David Chun wonders what the harm is in providing one more choice.

“I think that a lot of public education’s problem is that they think they’re the only game in town. We’re just another product that’s available,” Chun said. “We’re trying to do the best for our children, and I make no apologies for that.”

The Metro Charter parents are still in the process of securing a location for the school and hiring a principal. They’ll open with kindergarten through second grade classes, and hope to expand to fifth grade and 250 students by 2016. For now, it remains to be seen who those students will be, and where they’ll come from.