The school campus at 5421 Obama Boulevard in Baldwin Hills is like the scene of a painful divorce – except the couple is made up of two elementary schools, and neither of them is able to move out.
Under a policy called “co-location,” the campus is home to not one but two elementary schools. A traditional public school called Baldwin Hills Elementary opened there in 1943 and had the place to itself until 2016, when New Los Angeles Elementary Charter moved onto the campus as well, and despite years of tensions, never left.
“It's been a struggle for seven years,” says Jacqueline Walker, the community school coordinator at Baldwin Hills Elementary School. “A fight from the onset.”
More than 50 campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District are set up this way, and here, as on many of these campuses, neither school is happy about it.
“This has resulted in a negative community impact,” says Brooke Rios, executive director of New LA, of the co-location. “It's not something we want. It's not aligned with the vision of our program.”
When New LA opened its doors, Baldwin Hills had to hand over classrooms that once housed the school’s computer lab, yoga room, and space for the orchestra program and special education services. Baldwin Hills also now has to share the spaces that are left – their bathrooms, library, auditorium and lunch area.
“When we're on the playground, they're on another half of the playground yard,” Walker says. “We're cordial. We're polite. We're of course very professional. But it's rough, and I know I can speak for all the teachers here.”
Rios says it’s not comfortable for her school either, since they’re also squeezed for space. New LA’s 200 kids – about half as many attend Baldwin Hills – are crammed into seven classrooms. Everything else they need to run the school is crammed into two small bungalows divided up by cubicles, filing cabinets and bookshelves.
Rios says New LA never sought to locate specifically on Baldwin Hills’ campus. “We have no idea how those decisions are made. Nor do we have a voice. Nor does the host school have a voice.”
Co-location is the name of the Los Angeles Unified School District policy to place charter schools on the campuses of traditional public schools. It stems from a law called Proposition 39, passed by California voters in 2000, which requires school districts to give public charter schools equitable access to space.
Few people say it’s working as intended in Los Angeles.
“Proposition 39 was created in a really problematic way,” says UCLA Education Professor John Rogers. “It has created structures that lead to bad choices and difficult dynamics that very good people try to work within and find themselves struggling with.”
When Proposition 39 came onto the ballot, it was widely seen as an attempt to simplify the process of building new schools to ease urban overcrowding. “I think very few people that voted on it thought of it as a charter initiative,” says Rogers. “It was a facilities initiative, and it primarily sought to reduce the threshold for passing facilities based bonds from 67% – or two thirds of the public – to 55%.”
The law passed easily, but tucked away in it was a provision requiring school districts to give charter schools comparable access to new facilities. At the time the law passed, there were about 300 charter schools in California. Today, there are four times as many, according to the California Department of Education.
“It was a sneak attack,” says Jackie Goldberg, the president of the Los Angeles Unified School Board and a strong supporter of traditional public schools and their teachers’ unions. “It has no basis on what is best for children.” She continues, “The idea of co-locating schools is a terrible idea. Two schools really have no business being on the same campus with each other. Because now you have to say, ‘So who gets lunch? When? Who gets to use the gym? When? When does the auditorium get used? Can the auditorium be used?’”
Ricardo Soto, general counsel for the California Charter School Association, says co-location is a district policy, not a legal requirement. He says other school districts, such as San Diego Unified, don’t typically squeeze charter schools onto the campuses of traditional public schools but instead set aside funding to find charter schools their own private spaces.
Soto agrees the LAUSD co-location policy is not ideal. “From a school district perspective and a charter school perspective, they would like their own school facilities,” he says.
This school year, the tension between Baldwin Hills Elementary School and New Los Angeles Elementary Charter School came to a boiling point after parents reported incidents of New LA students bullying Baldwin Hills kids in shared parts of the campus.
“I'm not going to say it never happens. Kids make mistakes,” says Kate O’Brien, head of schools at New LA. “The co-location and the tension around co-locations is an adult issue. It shouldn't be impacting kids. They shouldn't be having to deal with the consequences of it. They should be able to come and be in school safely. And that goes for New LA students, Baldwin Hills students, students from any other school.”
Unsatisfied with the co-location and the way the schools resolved those incidents, dozens of Baldwin Hills parents and teachers gathered in protest outside their school’s main office in October.
“We are experiencing an academic and social emotional oppression, where our majority Black and Brown children are being deprived of the appropriate spaces and time for robust enrichment programs to take place,” Baldwin teacher and union activist Marie Germaine called through a bullhorn on the school’s front steps.
Baldwin Hills Elementary is one of the few predominantly Black neighborhood schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. As a pilot school, a magnet school, a community school, and a California Distinguished School, Baldwin Hills has curriculum, programs, and supports that reflect their students – and they’re very good at it. Students at Baldwin routinely outperform their district peers on standardized tests for math and reading.
Students at New LA are primarily Latino – and Rios says also mostly from the neighborhood.
Throughout the academic year, a number of parent and teacher activists at Baldwin Hills have been trying to get LAUSD to remove the charter school from their campus. Their actions intensified leading into February 1, the date each year the district decides where charter schools will go the next academic year.
LAUSD’s charter schools division – which oversees decisions about where to place charter schools – declined an interview.
But last week, the district released its decision. New LA can stay at Baldwin Hills next year, but they have to give back two rooms. To make up for it, the district invited them to take space at another public school just down the street.
Rios says she’s not interested in taking on another co-location. She says her sole focus has been securing a private facility for her school, and that she’s found a building she likes nearby. She hasn’t signed a lease yet, but she’s hopeful she’ll be able to move her entire school there by August.
“Even though our students are entitled to public school space as public school students, we’re opting to spend resources on a private site because the impact of this has been hard,” she says.
If New LA does move out, Baldwin Hills might get a couple of its classrooms back – or a different charter school could move in.