My Long, Strange Trip From Neighborhood School Activist To Charter Founder

By Ann Wexler

Many families on the West Side of Los Angeles have been victims of the capriciousness and hostility of our incumbent school board member, Steve Zimmer. It’s a not-too-well-kept secret that we are all beholden to him, and we better step carefully or we might experience his wrath. Not just charters, but district-run pilots, language programs, and even traditional neighborhood schools and magnets have felt the whiplash of his whims.

Zimmer is aware of his inflammatory language and tactics when it comes to school choice. He once told my son (a high school junior at the time, who had approached Zimmer to ask him for his help in getting space for our charter school) that he "apologized for the necessary rhetoric."

Parents at multiple schools have shared so many stories privately that don't get reported -- the behind-the-scenes meetings, threats to school leaders, and promises made and then broken, usually after a school community has given up something to appease him -- because they are afraid they will jeopardize whatever help has been promised or that they will suffer even worse consequences if they speak up. So people on the outside can listen to Zimmer’s words and think he seems reasonable, but they don't know what we, with our boots on the ground, experience on a regular basis.

I am a product of public schools and have always believed in public education and working within the system. As new parents living in Westchester, more than 20 years ago, my husband and I were dismayed at the lack of local residents attending our schools, which my husband had attended as a child. We joined a movement of other local parents who felt the same way and worked hard to bolster and improve the local public schools. I joined the board of the Westchester Playa Education Foundation, the only booster formed to support a family of neighborhood public schools within LAUSD.

But after a decade of volunteering for LAUSD schools in Westchester, which my own children attended, I joined with a small group of teachers and parents to start a charter middle/high school. This was not an easy step -- I had been reflexively anti-charter, thinking that our community could “fix” our local schools problem through greater attendance and hard work and fundraising. But we learned, as parents often do in LAUSD, it’s not always easy to make a difference because bureaucracy often thwarts our best efforts. 

For example: savvy parents at Westchester High got a local foundation to donate more than $30,000 to the booster club to establish a state-of-the-art college center, but after LAUSD failed to wire counselors’ offices for telephones (pre-cell phone days), the district brought workers back to correct the problem, then stuck the booster club with the substantial bill.

At Cowan, parents raised money to acquire smart boards. But parents weren’t allowed to install them, nor to hire competent workers to do so. So the “new” technology sat in a closet for several years waiting for LAUSD to do the work, long enough to become irrelevant. These frustrating and wasteful experiences happened often enough to discourage even the most dedicated parents (and teachers). Those who went to charter schools (or even other school districts) would report with amazement how money raised would actually be put to use.

The fact is, you can't "attend" away LAUSD's problems. Success is temporary and fleeting, and the revolving door downtown will whack you every time. There is no institutional memory because administrators at Beaudry change frequently. We learned this the hard way, after a group of dedicated local parents, teachers and community leaders fought for and achieved autonomy for Westchester schools, in exchange for not having Westchester High convert to a charter school modeled after Palisades High.

But a new superintendent came in and scrapped the deal in 2010. The newly elected Zimmer oversaw this reversal of the hard work that his predecessor, Marlene Canter, had accomplished. We listened in amazement as a new LAUSD staffer in charge of our fate asked us if we had ever held any type of community meetings -- unaware of the three years of town halls, study teams and training sessions, held with our district-approved “network partner,” Loyola Marymount University.

Fed up with broken promises, a group of teachers and parents in Westchester created Westchester Secondary Charter School to serve students in our community and the other communities that have traditionally attended Westchester schools: View Park-Windsor Hills, Ladera Heights, Playa del Rey, and Playa Vista -- communities that have, historically, made Westchester schools among the most diverse in LAUSD.  

We founded WSCS to address the fact that many parents in these communities were choosing to send their students elsewhere for middle and high school, based on the perception that there were not enough quality local options for secondary schools. We knew this would help stabilize elementary school attendance, which would ultimately mean more students to matriculate into local middle and high schools, including district options.

But Zimmer was hostile to WSCS since its inception. He did everything possible to try to thwart the school, first by denying its charter petition and then by taking steps to ensure that WSCS was not offered Proposition 39 space in or near Westchester.

Although district staff strongly recommended approval of our charter petition in 2012 -- one staff member told me that it was one of the best petitions they had received -- Zimmer led the board to deny approval. Zimmer never provided any public justification for his opposition (although we understand that, behind the scenes, he was falsely claiming that WSCS was intended to be exclusionary). As a result, WSCS was forced to take an appeal to LACOE, which unanimously approved the petition.  

According to Proposition 39 staff, Zimmer was instrumental in deciding Proposition 39 offers for charter schools in District 4. Although LAUSD has traditionally used Westchester as the dumping ground for charter schools from outside the area, it has repeatedly refused to offer us space in our own community. LAUSD said no to space on the campus of Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets (the former Westchester High -- another district-imposed change without community input, but that’s another story), saying the campus allegedly could not safely accommodate an additional program, even while it offered us space at another high school that had the same number of programs. This year, LAUSD has announced plans to put two new programs at WESM instead of us.

WSCS struggled to find adequate private facilities in Westchester amid zoning and other issues. Our parents and staff repeatedly asked Zimmer for assistance in securing public space in our community, but he and his staff often refused to talk at all. Even after telling some of our board members (in another one of those hush-hush, closed-door meetings) that he had been wrong about our exclusivity and would “partner with us,” he provided no assistance whatsoever. 

We asked and eventually sued to have the school be located at Emerson Manor, the site of a closed-down elementary school that had room to house both our school and the adult education school already there. Zimmer claimed that the campus was unavailable for a charter school, but then turned around and tried to offer it to someone else.

This school year, WSCS moved to the campus of Horace Mann Middle School in South Los Angeles, more than six miles from Westchester. Despite the great disruption from being uprooted, the school is continuing to provide its students a quality education, even though the community partnerships that were our hallmark have been weakened. 

WSCS is exactly the type of school that Zimmer should have been seeking to promote -- a small, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, community-based charter school serving students who are looking for an alternative to LAUSD’s large, traditional schools. Its percentages of students receiving special education services and who self-identify as LGBT are among the highest in our area.

Zimmer’s unreasoned opposition to WSCS is evidence of an ideology and rigidity that prevent him from carrying out his duty, as a board member, of serving all LAUSD students. An effective leader would work with both charters and under-enrolled district schools to create a positive outcome for all.

 Zimmer is not that leader. A school facilities expert told us how he offered to work with Zimmer years ago to solve the problems, and Zimmer refused to consider it. Zimmer needs to go. But even if he does, the memories of the nightmare he put parents like me through will last.

--- Ann Wexler is a special education attorney whose children attended LAUSD schools in Westchester for a total of 18 years. During that time, she held leadership positions with school support and governance bodies such as PTA, booster clubs, School Site Councils, and a variety of District committees. She is a board member of the Westchester/Playa Education Foundation, the only organization in LAUSD founded to support a family of public schools. She was the co-founder and a former board member of Westchester Secondary Charter School.