What was originally Westchester High School in Los Angeles wasn't built to accommodate the drop-off and pick-up routines of multiple schools. But with three magnet high schools under the Westchester Enriched Science Magnets umbrella, a STEM middle school and two charter schools — Ocean and WISH — on the campus, that has become the reality.
The schools also share one auditorium, which has seen "years of neglect due to lack of funding," says Rebecca Cunningham, whose daughter is in 7th grade at Katherine Johnson STEM Academy, a Los Angeles Unified School District school sharing the campus with the high school and the charters. "But, who should pay for that upkeep?"
Should it be the host school, even though the charters will use the space and benefit from the upgrades? Or should a charter school pick up the cost even though it has to reapply for space each year and might not be around to use the equipment?
Those are among the questions LAUSD hopes to answer through a new grant program designed to address facility issues on district campuses sharing space with charter schools — known as co-location. Last month, the school board unanimously passed a resolution directing district leaders to create a one-year pilot program using $5.5 million in charter school bond funds to pay for the upgrades.
"My working title for this resolution was 'Lemonade'" — as in what to do with lemons, says Nick Melvoin, the LAUSD District 4 board member who co-sponsored the resolution with board member Jackie Goldberg, a critic of charters. Melvoin, who won his seat with the support of charter advocates, paved the way for the grant program by holding a retreat for school leaders in co-located schools last summer so they could find a "path forward."
United Teachers Los Angeles made charter co-location a significant issue during the six-day strike against LAUSD in January, calling it an “invasion” that “hurts students in neighborhood public schools.”
Charter and district parents, however, came together to lobby for the resolution.
“When the adults are not getting along, that trickles down to the kids,” says Jenny Hontz, the communications director for Speak Up, a Los Angeles parent organization. “We as parents want to get past that.”
The organization also held a “peace walk” in September involving parents from a variety of school models. The resolution will require that charters and district schools work together to apply for the funds. “If everybody works together, we can create solutions,” Hontz says. “It doesn’t have to be hostile.”
“When the adults are not getting along, that trickles down to the kids."
Communications director, Speak Up
In California, co-location stems from Proposition 39, a state law passed in 2000 requiring districts to make unused classroom and non-classroom space available to charter schools serving students living in the district. But when charter schools move in with new furniture and equipment, that can be a "thumb in the eye" of the district school, Melvoin says, adding that he wants the grant program to "enable more parity."
"If a charter comes in, why should [district schools] be thrilled about that? I get that," says Michael Segel, whose daughter is in 5th grade at Goethe International Charter School, which occupies classrooms at Marina Del Rey Middle School in Los Angeles. "Let's get the two schools working together and finding something they can agree upon."
Most states with charter school legislation don’t specifically address the issue of shared space, says Micah Wixom, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.
“There aren’t a lot of examples of states explicitly or proactively encouraging this practice,” she says. “Most of the time it isn’t addressed or is passively allowed in state policy. Often it ends up being left to the district if they want to allow it or not.”
Must be ‘very carefully planned’
In Washington, D.C., which also has legislation giving charters access to unused school facilities, Ramona Edelin, the executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, said co-location in not the organization’s first choice.
On Thursday, organizers of a campaign called End the List will hold an event showcasing the work of charter school students and urging D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to give charters access to space they say could help accommodate 12,000 students on wait lists for charter slots. Edelin says they’ve identified 10 vacant buildings in areas of the city with the lowest-performing public schools.
“The primary objective is to occupy surplus buildings,” Edelin says. But she adds the association is “willing to entertain co-location as part of a strategy,” and she believes D.C. Deputy Mayor Paul Kihn is considering co-location as a compromise.
“Any discussion of co-location has to be very carefully planned,” she says, adding her organization is “keenly aware” of some of the complications with the practice in other communities. “We would be strongly opposed to willy-nilly moving into an arrangement without the proper planning.”
She said there have been examples of co-located schools in D.C., but they no longer exist.
Meanwhile, in New York City, a recent School Construction Authority report showing underutilization of NYC Department of Education buildings has given Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, an opportunity to push for increased access to district buildings.
“By refusing to make underutilized space available, the [Mayor Bill] de Blasio administration forces charter schools into private space at a significant expense to taxpayers,” according to a recent press release from the charter organization.
Some experts, however, question the practice of co-location in general, suggesting that “for district leaders, the advantage of saving money from shared space outweighs any potential disadvantages,” Kathy Schultz, Wagma Mommandi and Melia Repko-Erwin of the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote in a recent commentary.
They said teachers they interviewed “expressed overwhelming dissatisfaction and frustration with their current work environment, despite the fact that they may have been initially optimistic about the potential of co-location.”
Feelings of distrust and resentment between students and staff from schools on the same campus also surface, they wrote, especially when there is “little consideration for the history and traditions of the original school and the community it has served.”
The professors noted, for example, a newly co-located school’s decision to paint its doors the color of the original school’s historic rival — unknowingly — as one way co-location can interfere with school culture.
Melvoin said he didn't want to be too prescriptive with grant application process. A common request he's heard is for schools to each have their own buzzer systems so office personnel from the host school aren't responsible for always unlocking gates for charter school parents and visitors.
Some older LAUSD buildings could use a fresh coat of paint or repairs, suggests Roxann Nazario, a parent organizer with Speak Up. But other schools are newer, and upgrades are less of a concern.
For example, Panorama High School, in Panorama City, opened in 2006. Girls Athletic Leadership School, a charter middle school, occupies the high school’s fourth floor. The school leaders plan to apply for the grant funds to install refillable water stations throughout the building to cut down on plastic waste, said Nazario, whose daughter attends GALS.
“Ideally speaking, every school wants their own campus,” she said. But because that’s not always realistic, it’s important to have “positive examples” of how to manage co-location.
Co-location champions needed
A 2015 report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education pointed to a few elements that make arrangements less disruptive. It found when top leaders at both the district and CMO level are involved in preparing teachers and showing a commitment to sharing space, co-location can operate more like a partnership.
But in contrast, when there’s not a co-location “champion” at the district level, messages regarding how facilities are supposed to be used might not reach principals in the charters and traditional schools, the report said.
“There were always little things that could pop up that we hadn’t thought of,” says Todd Lindeman, assistant superintendent of high schools for the Aldine Independent School District in Texas, where Eisenhower High School and Hoffman Middle School both house YES Prep charter schools. Those issues included scheduling the use of common areas, such as cafeterias and gymnasiums, and accommodating different calendars.
Lindeman, who served as principal of the high school, said sometimes issues were referred to a steering committee involving both AISD and YES Prep leaders. AISD is also one of more than 20 districts that have signed a district-charter agreement to work together.
Mid-level administrators — what the CRPE report calls “fixers” — can also address challenges such as parking on a campus. “There is no such thing as too much communication about the goals and purpose of co- location,” the authors wrote.
At the Westchester site, the leaders of all the schools used to meet on a weekly basis, and over time, were able to reduce that to every other week because "the bulk of the big issues have been worked out at this point," Cunningham said, adding the schools "live relatively harmoniously together."
Nazario experienced the importance of communication in a more urgent way in September when both GALS and the high school were evacuated because of a suspicious device found near the campus.
“Imagine if these two school principals don’t work together and didn’t want to talk to each other,” she said, adding she wouldn’t want her daughter to go to the school if the leaders “did not have this relationship.”
The CPRE report authors noted working through school culture and nonacademic issues — such as sharing elective classes, for example — can perhaps lead in the long run to charter and district teachers collaborating on instruction. In AISD, YES Prep students participate in district electives and extracurricular activities, which is easier now that they have the same school-year calendars.
Melvoin gave an example of a charter and district school that shared the cost of a trauma counselor. Shared professional development or after-school programming are other areas where co-located schools could team up. "Maybe when the schools sit down to do this, they'll realize there is more they can do together," he said.