Foundation creates 22 new charter schools
USC has a strong connection to the charter school program; 27 schools are near campus.
By Callie Schweitzer
The Inner City Education Foundation announced plans Wednesday to create 22 new public charter schools in the 45-square-mile area between USC and Los Angeles International Airport to spur economic development in South Los Angeles.
The schools will serve as an alternative to traditional public schools in an area where many parents have lost faith in the Los Angeles Unified School District. ICEF's work coincides with the enormous growth that the California Charter Schools Association has seen in recent years, particularly in the South L.A. region and the area directly surrounding USC.
Mike Piscal, the foundation's CEO, said USC has played a large role in the development of ICEF schools. USC's Center on Educational Governance helped create parent, student and teacher satisfaction surveys that are now distributed on every foundation school campus, and several USC faculty members send their children to ICEF schools. Piscal said the foundation and USC are also in the initial stages of launching a partnership in teacher training.
One foundation school, View Park Prep Middle School, offers a program called JEP All Star Tutors that was started three years ago by USC Athletics Director Mike Garrett. USC athletes tutor about 50 students at View Park several days a week, but the program hopes to include the rest of the USC student body in the future.
The number of charter schools in Los Angeles has increased from 50 to more than 150 in the last five years, said Caprice Young, who recently resigned as president and CEO of the CCSA. Nearly half of those charter schools are located in the greater South L.A. neighborhood, and in the area directly around USC, there are 27 charter schools. When the 2002-2003 school year began, there were just three.
Young said that particularly in the South L.A. area, "Parents and teachers have simply decided the [public school] district is not fixable, and they've taken matters into their hands."
Piscal said he sees potential for greatness with charter schools in the USC area.
"USC is an island of incredible excellence," he said. "That's not occurring in all of the schools around USC, but it's starting to occur in the charter schools."
Piscal said the "broken belief system" in the neighborhood surrounding USC can be fixed when more students begin to see success in school.
And Howard Lappin, principal of Gertz-Ressler High School, a charter school located where Hoover Street meets the I-10 Freeway, said people's perceptions of the average student in the South L.A. area are usually incorrect.
"People don't have high expectations [of the kids in this area]," he said. "People don't believe kids who are poor or of color can learn, and we know that's not true."
ICEF's long-term goal is to annually produce 2,000 college graduates from South L.A. charter schools and bring them back to the community to create a sustainable middle class, he said.
Young said the charter schools in the South L.A. area tend to have a larger Black population than the noncharter schools, and the area has also seen a growing population of Latino students.
Of the 3,000 students ICEF public schools serve, about 90 percent are Black, about 10 percent are Latino and fewer than 1 percent are white or Asian, Piscal said.
Approximate enrollment figures show 50,000 students are in charter schools in Los Angeles for the 2008-2009 school year, compared to approximately 42,000 in 2007-2008, Young said.
Guilbert Hentschke, a USC professor of education and one of the leaders of an annual USC study that compares California charter schools to noncharter public schools, said one reason for the increase could be that parents see student safety and personal connections as key benefits to charter schools.
"Most of the growth [of charter schools] nationwide recently has been in the urban centers," he said. "The schools on average are some pretty troubled schools in those areas."
Piscal said South Los Angeles is a prime example of this.
"The demand for charter schools in South L.A. is enormous because parents are looking for a safe place to put their kids and [to find] a school that will help their kids get to college," he said.
Although the charter schools vary in size from 50 to 4,000 students, each school promises a more personal experience than noncharter schools, Young said. "Kids often say 'I dropped out [of a noncharter school] because no one would notice if I wasn't there,'" she said. "That's not true in charter schools. The charter schools choose to spend money on the classroom instead of on bureaucracy."
Hentschke said charter schools also offer more college-oriented curriculums than local public schools.
Of the 142 students in Gertz-Ressler's graduating class last year, all but three are attending college, Lappin said.
Charter schools, which run independently of the local school board and often use alternative curriculum and styles of teaching, were approved in California in 1992. Critics say the schools detract from public education by pulling funds from traditional public schools.
But Piscal said revamping public schools is no longer an option.
"Traditional public schools are utterly broken," he said. "They need a revolution not sprucing."
For Sandra Fuentes, a 2008 graduate of Gertz-Ressler who is now a freshman at California State University, Los Angeles, attending a charter school had a huge impact on her education. Fuentes said she switched to a charter school for high school because the environment in the schools in her neighborhood offered too many temptations like drugs and alcohol. After graduating, she became the first member of her family to attend college.
"In South Central, many kids were getting pregnant or were hooked on drugs," she said. "I knew if I was at a charter school where they do care about our future, I was gonna get something out of it."
Meg Palisoc, a USC alumna, who founded Synergy Charter Academy in 2004 with her husband, said she is hopeful that the increasing number of charter schools in the area surrounding USC will spruce up the neighborhood.
Synergy, located a mile east of USC, was named the 2008 California Charter School of the Year by the CCSA.
"As students and their families become more educated via charter schools, this should have a direct impact on decreasing crime and gang activities around USC," she said. "We hope to prove that our students can compete academically on a global scale."
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