Downtown Schooling

In deciding where to live, most parents with young children typically choose neighborhoods with quality public schools.  Unfortunately, most of these schools are located in the suburbs.  I say “unfortunately” because my wife and I live in the city: we are among the 45,000 residents who call Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) home.More specifically, we recently became parents and are a part of the over 18% of Downtown dwellers that either have kids at home or plan to start a family soon (Downtown Center Business Improvement District, 2011).

When we moved to DTLA a couple of years ago, we knew that the schools in our area were not the greatest.  However, we were and still are hopeful that the situation would improve in the future.  Two recent developments justify our cautious optimism.  Both involve “charter schools” which are public schools that are independently operated (with some oversight by the local school district) and are intended to provide solutions to urban school challenges through practices that help:

  • Ease the shortage of school facilities and seat space;
  • Narrow the achievement gap among students of various backgrounds;
  • Increase responsible parent and student involvement in learning; and
  • Improve teacher quality and performance evaluation systems.

Metro Charter Elementary School

A group of DTLA families has organized to create Metro Charter Elementary School in the South Park neighborhood.  This effort is led by Simon Ha, an architect, and Mike McGalliard, the former chief executive officer of L.A.’s Promise, a nonprofit organization that operates three public schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).  They are currently working on a charter application to present to LAUSD which has the authority to approve or deny it.  Their plan is for Metro Charter to be managed by parents, business leaders and educators, and serve about 120 students in grades K-2 when it opens in the Fall of 2013; they anticipate the school growing to serve roughly 520 students in grades K-5 by the Fall of 2016.  To accomplish this goal, the group needs to overcome two major obstacles: raising $250,000 to start the new school and finding a suitable location for it.  The group held a fundraiser called “Schoolhouse Rocks” last weekend and has also created a website through which interested parties can donate to support the cause.

USC Hybrid High School

Last week a new charter school opened in DTLA for its inaugural year of seven days-a-week schooling focusing on students who are considered to be at-risk of dropping out.  The 19,000-square-foot USC Hybrid High School  is located at 350 South Figueroa Street and includes a courtyard, large learning labs and smaller huddle rooms for smaller groups of students to gather.  Developed by USC’s Rossier School of Education, the school has a current enrollment of about 100 ninth graders.  The school offers flexible, year-round scheduling in an effort to accommodate students with other responsibilities like working a job or taking care of family members.  With Hybrid High’s extended hours, students have more freedom to decide when and how they complete their coursework.

The curriculum includes classroom instruction, as well as online learning and personal meetings with advisors to chart progress and plan individual academic schedules.  The school’s main goals are to achieve a zero-percent dropout rate and a 100-percent graduation rate.  Scheduling includes regular weekday instruction and supplemental days on the weekends.  Each student checks out a laptop to use at school each day, and is given an iPod Touch to take home to check email, download assignments, and serve as their identification card for cafeteria meals.

As a DTLA parent, I am excited about both the proposed Metro Charter Elementary School and the newly opened USC Hybrid High School.  However, I am a bit concerned about a proposal to place a moratorium on new charter schools and tighten oversight of existing ones under the jurisdiction of LAUSD.  The school board heard testimony on the proposal earlier this week, but did not take action due in part to opposition from many parents and other proponents of charter schools who argued that a moratorium would violate the Charter School Act and noted that 10,000 students are on charter school waiting lists.  The board is expected to act in October.  Not only is LAUSD the second largest school district in the country, it also has the most charter schools nationally at nearly 200 enrolling about 110,000 students.  School board members have grown increasingly frustrated by requests from charter schools to use more classroom space on district campuses, refusals by charters to submit student data, and the low enrollment of students with severe disabilities.

To continue its growth as a vibrant residential community, DTLA must offer great schools in addition to quality restaurants, shops, entertainment, parks, and other amenities.  While my three-month old daughter is years away from going to school, it is my hope that Metro Charter would be approved and that additional good schooling options would be made available to families who want to live and raise our kids in the urban setting.


Photo credits:

Downtown Los Angeles from Wikipedia

South Park neighborhood from Wikipedia

USC Hybrid High School from USC News

Profile photo of Clement Lau About Clement Lau

Clement Lau, AICP, has 15 years of professional experience in urban and regional planning. Currently, Dr. Lau is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. He enjoys writing about a variety of planning issues and is on the author panel for UrbDeZine. He also has published articles in the California Planning & Development Report, Public Works Management & Policy, and Progressive Planning. Dr. Lau previously worked for Los Angeles County's Department of Regional Planning and the consulting firm of Cotton/Bridges/Associates in Pasadena. He has guest lectured on public policy and urban planning topics at the University of Southern California and California State University, Northridge. He holds a doctorate and master's in urban planning from USC, and bachelor's in economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.