July 31, 2023

Carl J. Petersen: The Charter School Building Boom Hits The Valley

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Carl Petersen is a parent who keeps an eye on the Los Angeles area. Here he talks about how building and real estate drive the charter school biz, even when student demand is low. Reposted with permission.

“Having a permanent, dedicated campus provides more stability and consistency for our students and their families, and ties us more closely to our Van Nuys community.”


Artist rendering of plans versus reality.

Imagine you have worked hard to achieve the American Dream and saved enough money to buy a piece of suburbia in the San Fernando Valley. You pick an older neighborhood with modest houses crisscrossed by two-lane roads. Then one day a private school using public money buys a couple of lots in the neighborhood and bulldozes the houses that sat on them. In their places, construction crews start piling up modified 40-foot shipping containers. They will be placed together like a giant Lego set to build the new Van Nuys campus for the Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS). The view out your side windows will now be more like the Port of Los Angeles rather than the suburban Valley.

San Fernando Valley Harbor?

The eyesore that is being built will not be the only thing to affect property values in the area as the quality of life for the school’s neighbors is also expected to take a hit. Temporary “No-Parking” signs already dot the area, foreshadowing the problems that will occur when the school begins operations. The two-lane, narrow roads surrounding the building were not designed to handle the traffic patterns that accompany any school. This problem will be exacerbated by a lack of sidewalks, creating additional safety concerns for both residents and students.

The renderings provided by the school do their best to mask these issues making it appear that the school is part of an industrial area, not “a safe residential neighborhood.” Instead of the modest houses that are on the surrounding properties, the artist placed large, rectangular buildings. One of the adjacent houses has been replaced by a structure that looks to be taller than the school.

The school also puts its best foot forward with the suitability of the building for a positive school climate. While lots of windows are shown on the two visible sides of the building, the portion of the structure not shown is largely windowless. The design looks more appropriate for a prison than a school.

Additionally, the “running track and multi-sport playing field” hyped by the school is only 4,506 square feet. The school’s website says that students are given “the opportunity to explore a variety of activities” including field hockey, but this field is only 8.3% the size of a hockey field. A standard outdoor running track is approximately 1,312 feet in length but the one being installed at this campus is only 118.5 feet long. While the charter school is billed as being “athletic,” this facility will not include a gymnasium or a place to play basketball, handball, tennis, softball, or baseball.

This space will hold the athletic field and track.

These deficiencies in the facility’s design could diminish the ability of “having a permanent, dedicated campus” to result in increased enrollment. Like their publicly-run counterparts, charter schools as a whole have seen their enrollment decline in Los Angeles over the past three years and GALS is no exception. While its charter specified that the number of students attending the school last year would go up, it only served half as many students as the school said that it would. With this trajectory towards failure, the neighbors may eventually end up with the bigger problem of an abandoned eyesore rotting in their neighborhood.

GALS is only one example of charter schools in the Valley increasing capacity while the number of school-age students declines. Granada Hills Charter built a massive structure to replace the one-story campus that used to serve the Pinecrest school but has been unable to meet the enrollment projections specified in its charter. The Valor Academy Elementary School, which is a franchise of the Bright Star chain of charter schools, also has not lived up to its predicted enrollment but is ignoring the concerns of neighbors and progressing with plans to build a brand new facility on the grounds of a historic house in North Hills.

A neighborhood of modest houses.

Disrupting neighborhoods to build brand-new school facilities might be understandable if space was desperately needed, but enrollment has been declining in publicly-financed schools for more than a decade. These individual charter schools are no different and have not proven the need to spend taxpayer money to expand capacity. It is time for politicians to start standing up to the California Charter Schools Association and start protecting their constituents in the neighborhoods they were elected to represent.

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