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Getting Schooled: Downtown Lacking Education Options, But Many Parents Are Making It Work

By David Markland
Published: Wednesday, September 08, 2010, at 11:45AM
Taylor Tompkins Eric Richardson

Taylor Tompkins stands in the library on her first day at Para Los Niños Charter Elementary School, located on 7th Street just east of Alameda.

Taylor Tompkins may not be old enough to know it, but she’s a pioneer. It’s her first day as a first grader at Para Los Niños Charter Elementary School, where she’s only one of two Caucasians in a school predominately full of children from working-class Latino families. What makes this six-year old’s entry unusual is that her parents moved from suburban Chicago to Downtown Los Angeles, deliberately, so their kids could be raised in an urban area not typically considered family-friendly.

The Tompkins family was drawn to urban living while spending two years in Barcelona, Spain while Brian pursued an MBA there. There was a sense of community that they never saw back home in the suburbs of Chicago. “Shop owners light up when they see you,” Brian says, counter to lifelong neighbors who’d they maybe only see over a fence or pulling into a garage. “There’s a loss of culture,” Aimee adds of the suburban lifestyle.

Another Downtown resident, Michelle Bravo, commuted from Azusa for nearly 20 years before moving here a year ago with her son Julian, 13, and daughter Mia, 6. “Downtown was not a place you’d walk around after 5pm,” she said, adding that seeing the vibrant nightlife in the past few years had turned her around.

She wanted her kids to go to school somewhere close, but wanted to avoid them having to go through Skid Row to get there, and finally placed Mia at Evelyn Thurman Gratts Elementary, three blocks west of the 110 at 3rd and Lucas, and her son at John Leighty Middle School at Wilshire and Union. She says both of her children have excelled at their new Los Angeles Unified School District-managed schools.

A recent transplant from Sherman Oaks, Lily Buckley, 5 1/2, will enter kindergarten at Solano Avenue Elementary after spending her formative years as a student of La Petite Academy adjacent to Union Station. Tired of the commute from Sherman Oaks, her parents Paul, a composer, and Leticia, a marketing director at the Music Center, decided to make the move Downtown where they already worked. The couple was determined that “there had to be good public schools” near their home at Packard Lofts. Leticia says they spent hours researching kindergarten programs, and after visiting a number first person, found that Solano, was on par, if not better, than local charter schools.

The Tompkins, Bravo, and Buckley families may be indicative of a growing trend.

Between 2006 and 2008 Downtown’s population boomed by over 10,000 new residents, a 38 percent increase largely comprised of single young adults adding to a cycle of revitalization unseen in the area’s history. As art galleries, restaurants, and nightlife have flourished, the singles have become couples, and some, inevitably, have become parents.

While the current number of children living downtown is unknown, a 2008 study by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District showed a general population of 39,537. Of this, roughly 6.5 percent had one or more children up to the age of five, and 6 percent with children aged 5-13 (another 13 percent didn’t have kids yet, but were planning to in the next few years).

The same study shows that 73 percent of parents would like to send their kids to a school near where they live, but on first glance Downtown is limited on options.

In the past five years the area has seen four new public high schools built to meet demand and reduce overcrowding, but LAUSD’s only elementary school in Downtown proper, 9th Street Elementary, closed last June for a three-year reconstruction. Students who lived nearby have been redirected to Betty Plasencia Elementary in Silverlake.

Charter schools appear to be an all too popular option. Para Los Niños Charter Elementary has a waiting list of about 10 children per grade. Jardin de la Infancia, which only has 20 seats each for kindergarten and first grade, is also full.

When 9th Street elementary reopens in 2013, the school will pair with Para Los Niños with LAUSD operating a 450-desk elementary school and PLN operating a 405-desk middle school.

On Tuesday, Para Los Niños opened the PLN-Gratts Primary Center, with 360 spots for kindergarten and first graders at 6th and Lucas. Currently there are 20 spots still available.

Married architects Apurva Pande and Chinmaya Misra found a developmental preschool in Hope Street Friends for their daughter Anvaya, 3. Intended for children of employees of a nearby law office and investment firm, Hope Steet had several openings to outside students. As the couple look forward to the future, they plan to find an elementary school downtown for their daughter partly because, “Downtown has a sense of community lagging on the Westside,” says Chinmaya.

City West residents Colleen O’Brien and Noah Butler are keeping their options open for the future for their three-year old daughter Roz. She also attends Hope Street Friends one to two days a week where Noah, a stay-at-home dad and actor volunteers. “When Roz is ready for school, we’ll make the decision between public and private based on where she’ll get the best education,” Noah says.

The couple would like to see Roz attend a public school if possible so that she can be exposed to the various cultures and languages that make up the tapestry of downtown’s population. “I am actually hopeful that she is around a lot of kids from different cultures so she can pick up a second language organically, but I also want to make sure that she is getting the teachers’ attention that kids need in elementary school. So in two years, we’ll see if the public school budget crisis has been resolved, the competency rate of the teachers, and if the class sizes are small enough for her to get a good education,” adds Noah.

Jardin de la Infancia, a charter school founded in 2004 by Alice Callaghan, teaches kindergarten and first grade classes out of the Los Familias Del Pueblo community center on 7th and Wall Street. According to Callaghan, an outspoken critic of the LAUSD system, almost all of the students graduating second grade go on to attend Brentwood Science Magnet, which buses kids to and from the school throughout Los Angeles.

Joaquin Cornejo, a finance executive at Lionsgate, commutes with his two-and-a-half-year old to Santa Monica, where Evergreen Community School serves as an in-house daycare with priority admissions for employees of 2600 and 2700 Colorado (including MTV Networks). He’s already researching private schools for his child, and says a public school education is out of the question because he believes the quality of public school is based on funding. “The budget of the LAUSD would determine his education...”

While some parents debate the quality of elementary education available Downtown, one thing is for sure: Parents would like to see more option available in the near future.

“This is the next issue in Downtown’s evolution,” says Carol Schatz, President of the Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District. She says two years ago they were talking with a couple of “fairly tony” private schools about building a Downtown campus, “when the recession hit. We’re still plugging away at it.”

She adds, “We’ve attracted young families, we want to keep them here.”

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Kid-Friendly Downtown

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