The long-running battle between charter schools and traditional public schools has heated up nearly to a boiling point, with business magnate Eli Broad recently unveiling a campaign to charter-ize public ed in L.A. once and for all. The drama is happening mostly at the top between the Broad camp and public school advocates--notably the teacher's union, which has stepped up protests and criticism of Broad and his so-called reforms. But beneath the drama is the story of one campus's attempt to resist the takeover of a charter school, a story that illustrates the political complexity of the battle--the limitations of both sides, and how what almost always gets sacrificed in the struggle is what's best for students.
The campus is Emerson Adult Learning Center, a dedicated adult-school campus that sits at a dead end of a leafy block off of Manchester Boulevard in Westchester. Because it's an adult-school campus and not elementary or secondary, it tends to get overlooked--adults just aren't as compelling as kids as characters in the ongoing education wars. In fact, adult schools are de facto stepchildren of Los Angeles Unified; the campuses have been decimated by cutbacks in recent years, with Emerson's teaching staff shrunk down to 15 from a peak of 150. The school has practically no office staff. Yet in this still-unforgiving economy, the services offered by Emerson, which include classes in GED and pharmacy training, is perhaps greater than ever. Emerson is at capacity and California has an adult-ed wait list of 14,000, with the bulk of that number waiting in L.A. Unified.
Patrick Meyer is a teacher and reading lab director who's spent his entire 28-year career here. Like so many other students and staff, he calls Emerson a special place where a highly motivated, tight-knit community of learners and teachers function as a family. (I wrote about Emerson a while back when I profiled the unique, enduring friendship between Patrick and a career student, Phil Sparks). The majority of students here are black and Latino and many hail from other, less affluent parts of town: Inglewood, Long Beach, South Central. That's in stark contrast to the population of Westchester itself, which like many beachside communities is chiefly white and increasingly gentrified. More on that in a bit.
The trouble started a couple of months back, when Patrick noticed a crew of facilities workers from L.A. Unified walking around Emerson, sizing up the place. When he asked what they were doing, he got no answers. He asked his principal and got the same. Eventually he circulated a petition amongst Emerson students demanding information from the district about what was afoot. School board member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westchester, admitted there was a crush of school space on the westside, but told Patrick not to worry about the adult classes. Unconvinced, Patrick persisted in trying to get more specific information, though with little luck. "There was secrecy on all sides," he says.
Then, district superintendent Ramon Cortines showed up suddenly at school, though not to reassure Patrick and the Emerson community. Quite the opposite. Cortines didn't talk to any students, and in response to questions from Patrick only said there was "a shortage of classroom space 'in the area.'" Patrick kept pressing with questions, insisting that students at such a critically important adult campus that's been around 35 years deserve to know its fate.
Finally he got an answer: Emerson was going to be displaced by a charter school operation known as WISH or Westside Innovative School House. WISH had been operating at Orville Wright Middle School and Cowan Elementary, two of several Westchester campuses that depopulated in the years after massive white flight that started in the '70s. Yet the proposed move by WISH to Emerson is not simply a case of a charter looking to displace a regular public school: the school district is driving a game of musical chairs that starts not in Westchester, but nearby Playa Vista. Patrick learned that the district is telling parents at the new public elementary school campus in Playa Vista is oversubscribed, and that additional students have to be put up at Orville Wright. The WISH middle-school charter students currently at Wright are being offered Emerson. The plan thus far is that the Emerson school student body of 400 will be split between Wright and Westchester High School, located further west down Manchester.
Patrick and others at Emerson say such a split will destroy the cohesion of the school. They have other concerns, including the fact that Wright is not as conveniently situated as Emerson--a short walk from a bus stop on Manchester--and the appropriateness of adult students sharing a campus with middle-school age kids at all.
Patrick says it's all part of a blatant disregard and disrespect for the future of Emerson and the largely minority clientele that it serves. Board member Zimmer, who is famously anti-charter, says he supports adult ed but has not officially opposed the plan. Nor has the teacher's union, UTLA, which disappoints Patrick more. A UTLA rep himself, Patrick has participated in union protests against charters and the privatization of public ed. "In a perfect world, this situation at Emerson would be a great opportunity to stand against charter expansion, especially after Broad announcement," he sighs. "But so far we're kind of on our own."
Of course, he's gotten kind of used to that. As the district gutted adult ed over the years, Emerson lost core classes such as parent education as well as popular craft classes like knitting, art, literature and quilting. But the place still regularly works miracles, or maybe it just does its job. Emerson alumni go on to higher education or otherwise change their lives dramatically; essentially they get over the infamous hump that keeps so many under-educated people mired in poverty or in a vicious cycle of low-wage work. Several students testified about this in spirited detail at a rally held earlier this month at Emerson that was meant to send a message to the district and charter advocates alike that they will not leave quietly. "Adults matter, too," said Antonio Ramirez, 37, an Emerson student and former Crenshaw High dropout who's completing his GED and plans to go on to college. "This place is so key, closing it would be messed up. I want to teach my son that what I've done is important. I'm living proof that you can change your life."
The standoff highlights an uncomfortable but unspoken dynamic: white middle-class residents are seeking to populate the public school campuses again, but not necessarily with blacks and Latinos who have become the education demographic. Emerson Learning Center is certainly large enough to accommodate a charter operation--that is, it could share its campus--but that scenario doesn't seem to be on the table. Patrick says he thinks it's less about charter vs. public than it is about the district trying to facilitate the local repopulating that Westchester wouldn't mind having. The good news is that Patrick and others have been showing up to community meetings in Playa Vista and to district board meetings downtown, making their views known. The pitch seems to be getting a bit of traction, especially among Zimmer's fellow board members.
The bad news? The whole Save Our School campaign is costing Patrick, a lifelong surfer, some serious down time. But he says it's been worth it. "I haven't surfed in eight days," he says. "This fight is that important."