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Budget Cuts—Real and Expected—Spark Move Toward Charter School

One of the Valley’s highest performing schools, Carpenter Elementary, starts as a Charter School today.

This is part one of a series of three stories chronicling how Studio City's successful public elementary school became a new charter school because parents and administrators feared that an impending $640 million deficit in the school district would significantly impact children's education. They did it in record time, in less than a year; this is the story of how they did it.

For Michellene DeBonis, the last straw was seeing her daughter's fifth grade swell to 41 students.

"That was a killer year—never again," DeBonis recalled.

Today, when her son enters fourth grade at Carpenter, the class ratio will be no more than 25 students for every teacher. And the name of the school above the front door will be slightly changed.

Carpenter Avenue Elementary School becomes Carpenter Community Charter from now on.

It was earlier this year, just after the holiday break, that DeBonis, a few other parents and school Principal Joseph Martinez mulled over the idea of going charter.

This was unusual: The perception is that schools go charter because they have an underperforming student population with poor testing scores and a high minority population. Carpenter, which is 74 percent white this year, has neither.

In fact, Carpenter has one of the highest Academic Performance Index scores in the San Fernando Valley and in District 2 of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Its scores went up 10 points over the year before, to 912. 

"Our reason for the movement toward a charter school was not because we were trying to bridge any achievement gap," DeBonis said. "We just wanted to maintain the school that we've had about 20 years ago." She and parent Mary Odson--who owns the Big Sugar Bake Shop in Studio City and has a second grader--were co-petitioners for the school to become an affiliate charter with LAUSD.

"For example, we had an enriched education music teacher so that when the students studied American history, they would learn to sing Revolutionary songs or slave music," DeBonis explained. "We want a truly integrated program."

With LAUSD facing a $640 million deficit, music programs across the board are among the first things to be cut. But not at Carpenter, where music and drama are considered high priorities.

Some parents were naturally skeptical about the charter school idea. At first.

"I first heard about it in February or March,"  said incoming PTA president Andrew Barrett. "I never thought that the district would grant it. Parents didn't know what to think. There were too many unknowns."

But the more parents learned, the more it seemed possible.

"The positives far outweigh the negatives," Barrett said. "There are more chances to be more creative and engaged in your child's education. It's more exciting."

One big concern is that children outside the district could not get in, including low-achieving students who live in the area.

"We have a mandate to take the people in our area who live in our area first, and we have a lottery system that will encourage people from all over to get in, and we will be limited in how many students we can take, of course," Barrett said. "Other than that negative, I can't think of any other possible negative."

So when their children enter the school Monday, what will be different?

"I'm hoping the students won't notice much difference at all," the principal said.

What will be different is all behind the scenes. The tax money that comes to the school for its nearly 900 students--to teach at about 32 students per one teacher--can be split up in a variety of ways.

In the past, the School Site Council made decisions on a very small amount of money, and it often could be spent for only a few specific items: A certain section of money had to go to faculty, a certain amount had to go materials. There was very little autonomy.

"Every year we were faced with a smaller amount of money, and it has been cut even more," said DeBonis, who served on the Site Council. "We may get $15,000, and then we could only spend on teacher's assistants, or something like that."

The School Site Council will now be disbanded, replaced by a more involved committee called a Governance Council made up of teachers, parents and administrators.

"Now, there will be a Governance Council," explained Martinez. "In the past you got a certain amount of money, and it was divided up into five or six specific categories, and you were limited with what you could do with it. It made it very difficult to do anything effective with that money."

The Governance Council will meet after school on the third Thursday of every month, from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m.  The first meeting, on Sept. 30, will hold the first elections for the new charter school. DeBonis plans to run for a slot on the council.

The new council will decide if the money is going toward school beautification or administrative costs or equipment.

The money could be in the range of $270,000 to $300,000 a year—it is not clear yet how much of a budget the school will get, and it may not be until well after the school year begins.

"Now, all of our money will come as a block, and we will make decisions for ourselves on how to use that money," Martinez said. "We don't have all those restrictions, and we'll have a council that will say what percentage of the budget goes toward materials or salaries or technology."

Martinez added, "That will be a tremendous change."

Also see:

A Charter School How-to Guide: 7 Steps to Going Charter

TUESDAY:  What Teachers and Parents Should Expect About Going Charter

WEDNESDAY: He Tweets, He Recycles: An Innovative Principal Uses Technology to Reach Students

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