Published Online: April 2, 2013
Published in Print: April 3, 2013, as L.A. 'Incubator School' To Teach Startup Tactics

Students to Learn How to Launch a Business at L.A. Pilot School

Sujata Bhatt uses online games to encourage her students at Grand View Boulevard Elementary School here to aim higher: "Don't just play games, make them."

Now Ms. Bhatt will get the chance to teach middle school students how to launch their own businesses at a new campus approved last month by the Los Angeles school board. The Incubator School marks the latest effort in the Los Angeles Unified district to spark innovation through "pilot" schools, which give district educators autonomy over curriculum, budget, staffing, training, and other elements.

The 670,000-student system, the country's second-largest school district, has created the pilot schools to engage students' academic interests and ambitions. Those schools include a performing arts school, a school for visual arts and humanities, several schools with a college-prep and academic-leadership focus, and the L.A. River School, which is built around environmental science and the local ecosystem.

Despite enthusiasm for the concept of the Incubator School, however, the plan became entangled in disputes over its location, union concerns over job-placement rules, and political tensions.

The school board backed off from locating the new campus at Venice High School after parents and students complained they were not informed about it until right before the vote.

Sara Roos, a Venice High parent, told the board she wanted more details about the plan, although she sharply criticized it in online comments as an "experiment indoctrinating children in the tricks of an unregulated, free capitalistic market."

Lisa Sobajian, the 10th grade class president, submitted a petition signed by 1,000 students opposed to sharing their campus with the new school.

Ms. Bhatt said that she met with Venice High's principal and teachers' union representative last October, but that requests to present the idea to the faculty drew no response. District officials acknowledged their communication efforts fell short.

In any case, under an amendment by board member Steve Zimmer, the board approved the school but directed the district and the Venice community to work together to seek a location.

'Get the Kinks Out'

United Teachers Los Angeles, however, has not weighed in on the new school. The union has looked carefully at the 49 pilot schools approved by the district because they require one-year teaching contracts that do not place seniority as the top factor in job placement, giving administrators greater power to transfer teachers.

To control the quality of the new school, union President Warren Fletcher said, those proposing it should operate it for a year to "get the kinks out" before seeking pilot status and a faculty vote on the shorter contract.

But Mohammed Choudhury, the policy manager for Future is Now Schools, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group supporting pilot campuses, disagreed that schools should be required to operate for a year before becoming pilots. Mr. Choudhury said that delaying pilot status would give the union a chance to lobby teachers against signing the shorter contract.

"It's an attempt to protect mediocrity," he said.

The nonprofit—started by Steve Barr, a former chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Green Dot Public Schools, a charter-school-management company—contributed $150,000 in stipends for the Incubator School's design team.

Mr. Barr said it was better to place a pilot school on campuses with extra space, such as Venice High; otherwise, the district would be legally required to offer it to a charter school, which is publicly financed but independently run.

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Ms. Bhatt, a teacher for 11 years who has been credited with boosting student achievement in English and math, said she came up with the idea for the school while working as an adviser for a New York startup aiming to develop a science application for the iPad.

The young entrepreneurs—many of them in their 20s who already had started their own firms—inspired her to think about how to refashion teaching to better prepare students for the accelerated advances in the digital world, said Ms. Bhatt, who will serve as a teacher leader at the Incubator School.

"There's a disconnect between a textbook-based world, the excitement of problem-solving, and the energy and innovation of the digital economy," she said. "The reason students disconnect from school is that it's not connected to the real world."

The school is scheduled to open next school year with an initial class of 225 6th and 7th graders drawn from diverse backgrounds.

The students will learn such real-life skills as financial literacy and time management, and they will combine academic learning with hands-on tinkering. They also will work with entrepreneurial mentors in the Westside area's growing Silicon Beach and be guided to produce their own startup businesses by 8th grade.

Vol. 32, Issue 27, Page 10

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