School & District Management

‘Shadow’ L.A. District Idea in the Works

By Caroline Hendrie — November 27, 2002 11 min read
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Frustrated by the results of their past campaigns to change how the Los Angeles school system does business, leaders of the city’s school improvement elite are aiming to create a brand-name network of high-quality charter schools that could become a “shadow” public school system in the nation’s second-largest district.

The Los Angeles Alliance for Student Achievement, the successor organization to two groups that mounted major education reform efforts in the 1990s, is hoping to open about 100 charter schools serving some 50,000 students over the next five years, alliance leaders say.

Plans are for the 2-year-old nonprofit alliance to apply for charters, hire principals, and then run “families” of elementary, middle, and high schools that together would strive to foster college-going cultures in disadvantaged communities. While details of the plan are still being worked out, its ultimate goal will be to leverage higher student achievement in the broader public system, chiefly in the 737,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

“Our system will be larger than many school systems in America,” predicted William G. Ouchi, a professor of corporate management at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a co-chairman of the alliance’s 14-member board of directors. “People will say, ‘If you can run a charter system that way, why can’t you run the whole system that way?’ ”

Although they have yet to be formally announced, the alliance’s plans are generating behind-the-scenes interest both from experts in charter schools and those involved in trying to improve achievement in the nation’s urban schools. While it clearly builds on past efforts in both those domains, the approach envisioned by the alliance appears to be breaking new ground.

“This has never been done,” said Paul Koehler, the policy director of WestEd, a San Francisco-based research organization that the alliance commissioned last year to help chart its course. WestEd’s report to the alliance is currently scheduled for release next month.

The project comes as Los Angeles’ elected school board and Superintendent Roy Romer are looking to charter schools to complement the district’s own efforts to improve student learning, and to ease a severe space crunch in the system’s 677 schools.

The initiative comes as attempts to replicate and build networks of successful charter schools are gaining steam elsewhere. Some networks are led by for-profit education management companies, or EMOs. Others are run by nonprofit groups, backed by such philanthropies as the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the San Francisco-based Pisces Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, of Bentonville, Ark.

“The L.A. effort is a bit of a hybrid,” said Bryan C. Hassel, a charter school expert and the president of Public Impact, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based consulting group. “It’s like an EMO in that it is this deliberate effort to start a network of schools. But it’s a nonprofit, and it’s coming from the community. So in some ways, it has the best of both worlds. It is unique.”

Close to Home

One feature that sets the planned Los Angeles initiative apart is its distinctly local flavor.

The alliance is a product of the merger of two organizations—the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, or LEARN, and the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, known as LAAMP. Those groups mounted philanthropy-financed campaigns in the 1990s aimed at effecting far-reaching changes in the local public schools.

LEARN, a nonprofit organization founded in 1990, saw its recommendations for revamping the sprawling Los Angeles system adopted in 1993 as the district’s official blueprint for change. A thrust of that design was to shift decision making authority from Los Angeles’ central bureaucracy to individual schools.

That objective was never fully realized, however, especially when it came to control over money, said Mr. Ouchi, who was a co-founder of LEARN and later the chairman of its board. “It’s very, very difficult to get a school district to change itself,” he added.

Still, more than 375 schools eventually sported the trademark white-and-green LEARN banner. Many of them still do, even though the system has shut down its LEARN office and quietly shelved the restructuring plan when it divided the 704-square-mile district into 11 administrative subdistricts two years ago.

The LEARN campaign was already well under way when LAAMP was formed in 1995 to manage Los Angeles’ $53 million share of the $500 million national Annenberg Challenge. With a goal of broadening and deepening ongoing school improvement efforts throughout Los Angeles County, LAAMP sought to supplement but not replace LEARN.

A centerpiece of LAAMP, which ran its course in March 2001, was to develop families of elementary, middle, and high schools, many of which were LEARN schools. Alliance leaders say that many of those LEARN schools have expressed interest in converting to charter schools to become part of the alliance’s planned network.

While they acknowledge the mixed success of both LEARN and LAAMP, alliance leaders believe that they can use those groups’ work as a base to create brand recognition and feelings of trust for a network of charter schools.

“There is still a lot of goodwill across the greater Los Angeles community with regard to the work of those two organizations,” said Virgil Roberts, a lawyer who is the other co- chairman of the alliance’s board and who held the same spot on the LAAMP board.

Board members are leaning toward using LEARN as their network’s name, Mr. Roberts said, although alternative labels are possible. Mr. Ouchi said a survey conducted by the alliance suggested that the LEARN name would help lend credibility to the effort.

“The ‘branded’ charter school is going to be the wave of the future in charter schools,” Mr. Ouchi said. “With our organization, people are going to look at our board and have incredible confidence.”

‘Hybrid Corn Seed’

Setting up a network of brand- name charter schools is an idea being pursued by several other nonprofit organizations.

The San Francisco-based KIPP Foundation, for example, has helped establish 15 middle schools, 10 of them charter schools, that aim to replicate the success of the original two Knowledge Is Power Program academies in Houston and New York City. The foundation aims to open about 20 KIPP schools a year around the country, beginning next school year. (“KIPP Looks to Recreate School Success Stories,” Oct. 30, 2002.)

The San Francisco-based New Schools Venture Fund is helping replicate the school models used by High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego. It is also modeling the seven charter schools in central California run by the Redwood City, Calif.-based Aspire Public Schools, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Reed Hastings, the chairman of the California state board of education.

A Boost for Charters

In the past few years, several national civic organizations also have begun helping their affiliates found charter schools, also with philanthropic support.

A prominent example is the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, which has used money raised from various foundations to help its affiliates get charter schools off the ground in communities with large numbers of Hispanic students. The national YMCA, Youth Build USA, and Volunteers of America Inc. are engaged in similar work. (“Hispanic Group Quietly Initiates Big Charter Push,” Nov. 21, 2001.)

Unlike those efforts, the Los Angeles alliance schools would be concentrated in one metropolitan area. Because of that, alliance leaders see their plan as holding greater potential to influence other public schools. Indeed, the idea grew out of the alliance’s search for a strategy that would address the chronically low levels of academic achievement seen in many Los Angeles schools.

Alternative plans considered by the alliance included pushing to break up the Los Angeles district—a long-discussed option still being pursued by various advocacy groups—and directly working to effect a kaleidoscope of improvements in the existing school system, Mr. Roberts and Mr. Koehler said.

Ultimately, Mr. Roberts said, board members concluded that “the only way you can change a system is by showing that I can take the same kids in the same conditions, and by organizing differently, I can get a better result.”

Mr. Ouchi added: “We decided that it was far better to plant our own corn with our own hybrid corn seed, and when our corn grows bigger and taller, sooner or later the other farmers are going to come by and want some of that corn seed, too.”

Although alliance leaders have no illusions that reaching their goals will be easy, indications are that the Los Angeles school board may well be receptive to them.

“We’ve been very supportive of charter schools,” Caprice Young, the president of the Los Angeles board of education, said last week. “And for charter schools to be successful for any systemic reform, there’s going to have to be a franchising of successful charter schools.”

Ms. Young, who has been the board’s president since July of last year, said she had not seen the alliance’s plan but was aware that it was in the works. With about 300,000 students on year-round schedules to save space, she said, the district is facing “serious overcrowding problems” that it hopes new charter schools can help ease.

This month, voters in Los Angeles approved a bond issue that will provide $3.3 billion for school construction. In addition, voters statewide gave the go-ahead to a $13.5 billion bond measure for education facilities, which will help support the district’s building program. Both bond measures set aside money for charter facilities.

“It is well-timed,” Ms. Young said of the alliance’s plan.

This past June, the seven-member Los Angeles school board adopted a new policy that calls for creating “from 15 to 20 charter schools per year in order to accommodate 20,000 to 40,000 students in the next five years.”

Since the 2000-01 school year, the number of independent charter schools within the district’s borders has more than doubled, to 25, with 11 of those opening this school year alone. Meanwhile, the number of so-called affiliated charter schools—schools that have greater autonomy than regular public schools but that remain closely tied to the district—has been holding steady, and now stands at 26.

Describing charter schools as “part of the district’s family and an asset from which we can learn,” the board’s new policy identifies six types of charter applications that will be given priority.

Topping that list are secondary schools, as well as schools serving communities with especially overcrowded classrooms or low-achieving students.

According to the policy, “schools that propose innovative solutions or that have creative and viable designs to solve persisting educational problems"; schools that already have facilities; and those that have secured start-up funding of at least $200,000 will also be given priority.

Grace Arnold, the director of the district’s charter schools unit, said last week that she was unfamiliar with the details of the alliance’s plans. Yet she said she strongly supports the idea of networks of charter schools, “because the more visible schools are, and the more accountable to their peers schools are, the better the job that people tend to do.”

“My sense would be that the district would be receptive to it,” she said of the initiative being planned by the alliance.

‘We’ve Tried Everything’

Some analysts regard the prospect of a “shadow” district in Los Angeles as evidence that more school leaders want to put their eggs in baskets other than the traditional public schools.

Ted Kolderie and Joseph P. Graba of the Center for Policy Studies at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., have been organizing a series of gatherings and speaking engagements aimed at generating greater interest among policymakers around the country in fostering the creation of new and different schools. (“Spinoffs From Traditional Schooling Seen as Vital to Reform,” Oct. 24, 2001.)

Sonia Hernandez, the president of the Los Angeles alliance, discussed the group’s plan at one such gathering in St. Paul late last month. Ms. Hernandez declined subsequent requests from Education Week to elaborate on the plan.

Mr. Kolderie and Mr. Graba said last week that the budding Los Angeles initiative reflects a growing recognition by policymakers that the goals of standards-based reform—enabling all children to learn at levels previously reserved for a relative few—are not obtainable solely through attempts to revamp existing schools.

“It’s a terrible message, but increasingly people are saying, ‘We’ve tried everything, and we can’t make it work,’ ” said Mr. Graba, who has formerly served as a vice president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, a deputy state commissioner of education, and a Minnesota state legislator. “If we’re really serious about helping every child to be a successful learner, our existing schools cannot do that.”

Mr. Roberts of the alliance board said he hopes the organization can open the first of its charter schools next fall, but will not be “crestfallen” if that target is missed. When the initiative does get off the ground, he said, he hopes it will yield lessons for others trying to bring about large-scale change in urban schools.

“We’re excited about it, and I hope that we can make it work,” Mr. Roberts said. “If we’re successful, we will be blazing a trail for other urban educators to follow. If we’re not successful, I hope that people watch and learn what not to do.

“But it’s clear that we must do something.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as ‘Shadow’ L.A. District Idea in the Works


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