Network Seeks to Corner Market in South L.A. With More Charters

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Leaders of a Los Angeles charter school network want to open nearly two dozen schools to serve thousands more students, in a bid to transform one of the city’s most poverty-stricken, crime-ridden communities.

The Inner City Education Foundation, which now runs 13 charter schools with 3,000 students in the largely poor, mostly African-American neighborhoods that make up South Los Angeles, envisions opening 22 more of the independent public schools over the next eight years.

Under the plan, which needs school board approval, those elementary, middle, and high schools, together with the network’s existing charters, would ultimately serve a projected one out of every four students who live in the 45-square-mile zone of South Los Angeles that is bounded by four major freeways.

The charter network’s founder, Michael D. Piscal, said he waited until his team was running multiple schools with a track record of sending students to college before embarking on a large-scale expansion.

Approximately 600,000 people live within the boundaries of the freeways. Some 80,000 of the area’s residents are school-age children, most of whom attend schools operated by the 700,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

In an interview last week, Mr. Piscal, who is the chief executive officer of the Inner City Education Foundation, argued that expanding the network’s charters in the distinct geographic zone of South Los Angeles is the best hope for turning a long-troubled community into a place that produces college-bound high school students who will return as middle-class professionals to work and lead in their neighborhoods.

“The public schools have utterly failed this community,” said Mr. Piscal, who at one time taught at the elite Harvard-Westlake School, where some of Los Angeles’ wealthiest and most prominent residents send their children.

“The Crips [street gang] were born in this community, this is where the [1992] riots were, and this is where the crack cocaine epidemic got started,” he said. “We want this community to become known as the place where all kids go to college and graduate from college, and return here to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, and community leaders.”

‘Education Corridor’

The Inner City Education Foundation’s expansion plans are the latest signal that charter school alternatives to regular Los Angeles Unified public schools remain in high demand from parents, said one education expert. Los Angeles is home to nearly 150 charter schools now—the largest number in any city in the nation—serving roughly 40,000 children.

“I think as Los Angeles Unified continues to try to find its way in figuring out how to improve achievement for its kids, the energy we are seeing around reform in this city is mostly coming from leaders in the charter sector,” said Guilbert C. Hentschke, an education professor at the University of Southern California.

Mr. Hentschke, who has written books about charter schools and the business of education, said the Inner City Education Foundation’s focus on the economic revitalization of a single community—or “education corridor,” as Mr. Piscal calls it—as a central goal of its expansion is not only ambitious, but also may be unique for a charter school network.

“It’s an approach for a charter school management organization that we really haven’t seen before,” Mr. Hentschke said. “It’s designed to really have an impact on a sizable community. What you usually see are [charter management organizations] that open a handful of schools, have success, then move on to another community to open schools elsewhere.”

Mr. Piscal’s best-known school is View Park Preparatory High in the Crenshaw neighborhood of South Los Angeles.

Seeking Approval

While serving an estimated 25 percent of all South Los Angeles schoolchildren in new or existing Inner City Education Foundation schools by 2016, Mr. Piscal said, the network would enroll an even greater proportion of high school students—more than 50 percent—under the plan. He projects that the network’s planned total of 14 high schools would produce 2,000 graduates each year.

Before the foundation can move forward with the plan, it must win approval from the Los Angeles Unified school board, since most of the new schools would open in the district’s boundaries. The Inglewood Unified School District board must also sign off, since that district serves one corner of South Los Angeles where some of the proposed charters would also open.

Vol. 28, Issue 07, Page 8

Published in Print: October 8, 2008, as Network Seeks to Corner Market in South L.A. With More Charters
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