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When your charter school closes 3 weeks into the year, where do you go? In West LA, you have options

Students at City High School, a now-shuttered charter school in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles, play basketball against their teachers during one of the school's final days in operation.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
Students at City High School, a now-shuttered charter school in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles, play basketball against their teachers during one of the school's final days in operation.

Stacy Walker dropped her 14-year-old son off at City High School on a Monday morning, then immediately hit the phones.

She had a feeling what was coming later that night. She'd gotten a letter from the charter school's administration saying City High was in financial trouble and that the school's board would hold a special meeting about it that night, Sept. 12. Walker's first thought: her son's school was about to close. That Monday morning, she started calling around to find a new place for him to go.

"It was a gamble from the beginning, right? Because it's a new school," Walker said. "You never know who that's going to turn out."

Walker's hunch proved correct. A mere 13 months after the school had first opened, the board of City Charter Schools voted that night to shut down its high school as soon as all of its students could find new schools.

But Walker didn't have to scramble for long. By the next day, she'd secured a spot for her son in Hamilton High School's Academy of Music and Performing Arts — one of the most coveted options in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"I got lucky," said Walker.

In fact, many of the 120 students at City High School and their parents also quickly found landing spots.

Sophomore Asha Fletcher said she wound up getting into University High School's School for Advanced Studies, which serves students identified as gifted and talented. Her friend and fellow City High School sophomore Lara Colindras ended up in the "SAS" program at L.A. Unified's Hollywood High, which is her home school.

Still, finding out City High was closing "really broke my heart," Colindras said. "I cried … A lot of us cried. It was really hard to take."

Welcome to the Westside of Los Angeles, where students and families face a dizzying array of school choice options.

In that context, the answers to the questions City High School's leaders are asking themselves now — were they simply lost in the shuffle? Was there ever a market for the type of school they were trying to build? — don't fit easily into the simplified narratives about charter schools in L.A.

And City High School's sudden demise demonstrates both how competitive and how complicated west L.A.'s school choice market for high schools has become.

"I think it has a lot to do with the levels of risk people are willing to take on an unknown entity," said City Charter Schools executive director Valerie Braimah. That risk, she guessed, seems greater to parents choosing a high school — after all, college admissions are on the line.

"Parents will take that risk in an elementary school or middle school," she said, "but by high school, it becomes so high stakes."

When they launched last year, City High's founders hoped their new school eventually would top out at around 540 students — slightly larger than westside schools like Magnolia Science Academy No. 4 or the Academy of Arts and Sciences, but far from the size of comprehensive high school like L.A. Unified's LACES or the El Camino, Granada Hills or Larchmont charters.

They saw City High as a destination for students at the elementary and middle school operated by City Charters; the middle school had a long waiting list.

Yet City High had trouble making its enrollment targets from the beginning. It opened last year under-enrolled by 50 percent, Braimah said. She said only 25 percent or 35 percent of the students at City Charter's middle school matriculated to City High.

"Some kids just want the bigger school," Braimah said. "They want the football field, the marching band and all of those trappings; lots and lots of elective choices."

Optimism abounded when City High School started in the fall. The school had moved from a temporary site on the campus of L.A. Senior High to a former Jewish school it was renting in Pico-Robertson — much closer to their target neighborhoods. They felt it was only a matter of time that word would get around the area, and their expected enrollment of 150 students would inch upward toward the 170 they needed.

The opposite happened. After the first week of school, it was clear around 25 students who had signed up to attend City High weren't going to show up. A few students showed up, but more left when several nearby schools began pulling from their waitlists. (Braimah said those schools included other charters, like Magnolia and New West; and an L.A. Unified pilot school, the Incubator.)

With around 120 students enrolled, an odd straw broke the camel's back: Braimah said an electrical fire revealed deep-seated problems with their building's wiring and air conditioning. Fixing it would've required costly and lengthy repairs.

Before fighting to force their landlord to complete them, Braimah said her staff paused to run several projections. They showed even if the school were to pull out of their lease at the Jewish school and co-locate again at an L.A. Unified site — under state law called Proposition 39, charter schools can access a fair portion of space on district campuses at very low cost — City High still likely would not survive.

"Even if we could get a viable Prop. 39 [site], we could balance the budget next year if we didn’t hire any more teachers," Braimah said. "But we’re adding 11th grade. We need a physics teacher and another English teacher."

Still, there are potentially 41,000 students on waiting lists for charter schools in L.A. Unified, according to a 2014-15 analysis by the California Charter Schools Association. Braimah said City's middle school counterpart has a wait list more than 800 students long. Why didn't more students show up at City High School's doorstep?

Braimah said she guesses few people who know how to navigate school choice in Los Angeles — meaning even if there is a substantial population of families hungry for an intimate alternative to L.A.'s sprawling comprehensive high schools, those families wouldn't know how to find City High School. She said she sees this as her students look for new schools now.

"The families who applied to six high schools before they chose us just went back to the other five high schools to see if they had openings, and some of them did," said Braimah. "The ones that took longer to place were the ones whose parents didn't know what their options were."

On the other hand, even parents could find City High School, Braimah acknowledges selling them on attending is more difficult without a flashy educational model — for instance, a focus on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) or arts.

"Our story’s a little harder to tell," said Braimah. "It's like, 'We love kids!' Well, everybody says they love kids."

Roughly half of City High School's students received free or reduced price meals. The school was roughly one-quarter white, a little more than one-quarter Latino and around "35 to 45 percent" African-American, Braimah said.

Braimah now said she plans to focus on "making sure our really great elementary and middle school remain viable."