LAUSD Should Put Kids First at New Middle School

The Los Angeles Unified School Board will vote Tuesday on whether to create a new, autonomous STEM-focused demonstration middle school to open next fall in partnership with Loyola Marymount University on the campus of Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets. The school would be an extension of the successful Playa Vista Elementary School and deserves a yes vote from the board to get off the ground.

For months, however, LAUSD promoted this as not only an extension of PVES but also as a great new option for families in Westchester, Playa del Rey, Playa Vista and beyond. The Neighborhood Council solicited family input through surveys, and many families were excited by the prospect of a new community school -- one with autonomy and a record of success. 

Then on Nov. 28, just two weeks before the slated vote, LAUSD disclosed the proposed size of the school and a controversial list of enrollment priorities that has driven a nasty wedge straight through the community.

LAUSD is limiting enrollment in the new school to 100-150 seats per grade, which would only be enough seats to accommodate the kids currently in the lower grades at PVES. The proposed enrollment tiers give the Playa Vista Elementary students first priority. Residents of the community would be admitted in the second tier if space permits.

Under these conditions, the school would likely serve only as a feeder for the Playa Vista Elementary students, belying the promise of a community school. One of the main issues the community raises is that the school will not be located in Playa Vista. It will be located in Westchester, at the campus of the local high school, one of 14 LAUSD schools whose test scores place it in the bottom 5 percent of the state, which has led to extreme under-enrollment. Even with the other schools co-located on the campus, it is unclear to us why the enrollment at the new middle school is being so constrained by LAUSD.

All of this has exposed the deep anger many Westchester residents feel about the performance and state of LAUSD schools in the community. Residents have turned to charters such as WISH, private schools and nearby neighborhoods and districts after years of feeling like they were ignored, abandoned and betrayed by the district.

The only other middle school in the community where residents are guaranteed access is an under-enrolled STEAM magnet where only 16 percent of students are meeting math standards. It remains the preferred choice for some families. But for many new families moving into the area, dubbed Silicon Beach for the influx of tech jobs, those scores just don’t cut it.  

Many Westchester families got excited by the prospect of this new school, in part because of the success of PVES but also because LMU would have some autonomy over teacher hiring and some waivers from traditional union contracts, which is important to the many Westchester families who fought for and received some autonomy years ago only to have it ripped away by LAUSD in 2010.  

Westchester Secondary Charter School was formed as a result of that loss of autonomy, and LAUSD not only denied their charter and subsequently their request for space at the Westchester High campus, claiming there was no room, but also sent them packing to an entirely different community in South Los Angeles. So many feel betrayed to see LAUSD now does, in fact, have space there, not for a Westchester school but for Playa Vista families instead.

At the same time, PVES families and LMU have sought to open a middle school that will allow their students to continue their high-quality STEM education in a successful setting. Yet there has been no identified space for the school in Playa Vista. Their goal is not to deny access to their program to others in the community, but to ensure that their children have educational continuity.

Despite the history of hard feelings and a lack of transparency over facilities, LAUSD has a chance to fix things with this new middle school, by expanding the number of seats available and allowing more families in the community to enroll. There appears to be plenty of room on the campus for more kids, even with two other small schools co-locating.

In a 2008 letter, LAUSD said the capacity of the campus was 3258, and there are only about 1100 students currently enrolled in the magnets and a few hundred more at the two schools that are co-locating, one of which is expected to leave for a private site within a few years. There appears to be space for more than 1500 additional kids on the campus.

If capacity truly is the issue, as LAUSD staff suggested at a recent community meeting, we are imploring LAUSD to explain why and how. Be specific and transparent about the actual current and projected enrollment over the next five years and the precise capacity of the school. 

If there is no real space issue, as we believe is the case, it baffles the mind that during an enrollment crisis LAUSD would not expand the size of a successful school to accommodate families clamoring to enroll. But LAUSD staff insisted at a community meeting that it would not.

This, we believe, is a reflection of the tension between the LAUSD central bureaucracy and community desire for local autonomy, one of Speak UP’s core values and one that the district professes to endorse. The problem is that local autonomy not only runs counter to the bureaucracy but also gets pushback from the union.

This new middle school, for instance, requires United Teachers Los Angeles and Associated Administrators of Los Angeles to agree to waivers from the traditional union contracts to give LMU more control over teacher hiring and to allow for student teachers to be in the classrooms full-time, which requires extra planning hours.

Given these waivers, UTLA may be the driving force behind the desire to keep this school so small. LAUSD School Board President Steve Zimmer, whose campaign is funded by the union, claims he is for all kids, not some kids, and here is the chance for him to push back against his union donors and prove that it is true.

Speak UP supports a kids-first agenda. Adding more seats to the school to meet the demand of local residents would be good for kids, good for the community and good for LAUSD, which cannot afford to be turning families away. If the district, school board and its president mean what they say about local autonomy and student-centered policies, then it is time for them to live up to these ideals and act on behalf of kids rather than adults.

Playa Vista is a successful elementary school, and it deserves its pathway to 8th grade. But increasing the seats available to meet demand from the rest of the community would help more kids benefit from its STEM demonstration model and boost LAUSD enrollment.

The bottom line: When LAUSD has a successful school like PVES, LAUSD should expand it and try to replicate it. If it would offer the same type of autonomy to all the local schools in Westchester, then families would not be set up to compete so fiercely for limited spots at this one school.