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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Public and charter schools share an Echo Park campus but little else

By Todd Walker

Logan Street Elementary School and Gabriella Charter School are three months into sharing their Echo Park campus but opinions differ on how the process is going.

Logan had been the sole tenant since its founding in 1888. But that changed last August when the students and staff of Gabriella, a dance-themed elementary school, relocated to the Logan campus from their overcrowded Westlake facility. It’s difficult to tell from the street, but the two schools are completely independent. Most of the Logan kids enter campus off Montana Street; meanwhile the Gabriella kids arrive around the corner on Logan Street. The two schools also have separate classrooms and playgrounds. The kids even eat in separate areas – the Logan kids in the cafeteria and the Gabriella students outside. Many have questioned whether the arrangement could be a success given the nationwide tension between charters and public schools.

“It’s very early in the process, but relations have been surprisingly good,” says Liza Bercovici, Executive Director of Gabriella Charter School, which now occupies the bungalows behind Logan’s main buildings. “As we deepen our relationship I hope that we’ll find ways to help each other, but the Logan staff has done everything they can to reach out and we’re really appreciative of it.”

Among some Logan teachers, however, mistrust lingers from the contentious co-location process last spring that brought both schools together.“ The current relationship is based on the feeling of being misled, lied to,” says James Lopez, a 3rd grade Logan teacher and chapter chair for United Teachers Los Angeles. Lopez doesn’t blame Gabriella, but says that some parents and Logan staff felt that Gabriella was forced on them by Los Angeles Unified. Logan’s enrollment had fallen to a historic low about 550 in 2008 from almost 1,300 in 2001.

Under Proposition 39, passed in 2000, any school that falls below a certain enrollment can be tapped for co-location with a charter in order to fill the empty space. The Logan campus is one of 24 locations within LA Unified currently being shared by public and charter schools, according to the district’s Innovation and Charter Schools Division.

Gabriella’s arrival worried many local parents who feared that the charter might displace Logan or that their children might not be eligible to participate in charter school programs. Gabriella, and charter schools in general, are part of the public school system, but by law admit students through a lottery and are not required to accept any set percentage of local children. Currently, about 35% of Gabriella’s kindergartners, and 40% of the 5th and 6th graders, are from the Echo Park area. Gabriella’s administrators expect that number to rise in the coming years as the school grows.

It’s this rise in numbers that troubles some Logan teachers. James Lopez worries about crowding. Gabriella’s dance studios are not yet complete, and this has obliged Logan to share its auditorium for dance classes. This has caused some recent scheduling conflicts. However, the lack of space may well be temporary: the dance studios are due to be complete by the end of Christmas vacation.

However, Lopez says he’s concerned the issue may be long term. “They [Gabriella] are slated to grow to 800,” he says, “and that’s a significant portion of the school. They will have to encroach more and more onto our facility.” Lopez wonders what will happen if Logan once again grows in size. “We’ve got a new principal, Luis Ochoa, who is really, really good. What will be interesting is if we’re successful and neighborhood residents want their kids to stay at Logan, and we get the 6th grade. Then there will be a war for space.” Eva Rivas, a Logan parent, shares the same concern. “We want to fight for Logan because we know that if we keep losing students Gabriella might take over the whole school.”

Both Gabriella and Logan administrators have denied this possibility in the past. Gabriella’s principal, Lisa Rooney, says Gabriella’s charter caps their enrollment at 420. “Right now we’re at 270,” she says. “Next year we’ll have an additional 2nd and 3rd grade to bring out elementary enrollment to two classes at each grade level, but that is it.”

In regard to the dance studios, Rooney says that they will benefit not only the Gabriella students but also the Echo Park neighborhood because they will have classes that are open to the community. “We have a dance program called ‘Everybodydance,’ and it’s for kids from pre-k to 18 years old. We’re hoping to start a new section here rather than pulling from our waiting list at the other locations so that it’s more available to local residents.”

Nonetheless, some Logan parents worry that their children will feel inferior when they see the dance studios and other Gabriella amenities. Trina Mejia is the parent of a Logan first grader, and a teaching assistant at nearby Clifford Elementary. “Our parents say that they have great things,” she says, referring to Gabriella. “New laptop computers, dance studios — and they’re right next to us. How do you think that makes our kids feel?”

Eva Rivas brings up the food service at the two schools. “They [Gabriella] are coming with caterers, and our food is bad,” she says. “The kids see the difference and they say that the food they [the Gabriella children] are eating is really good.” Cheryl Ortega, a retired teacher who now substitutes at Logan, feels that this is part of the problem with charter schools in general. “What they’re doing,” she says, “is setting up and maintaining a two-tiered school system.”

These worries may be aggravated by the fact that there is little contact between the students of the two schools, which some feel may emphasize that the two student bodies are somehow different. Lydia Vilppu, a Gabriella parent, acknowledges that the two schools don’t currently interact much, but says that the Gabriella administration is trying to come up with ways for them to work together more. “We had our first parent meeting a month ago,” she says,” and that was the thing they talked about.”

“We’re mindful of the concerns and we’re doing whatever we can,” says Rooney, the Gabriella principal. “We’re making an effort to reach out to Echo Park. We’re participating in the
Echo Park Parade, and we’re also a sponsor.” Gabriella has
also expressed a willingness to lease out its parking lot at night to local businesses to ease a critical parking shortage in the area. “We’re trying to be a good partner in the community,” Rooney says.

- Todd Walker is a writer and filmmaker living in Echo Park.



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