Metro Charter Elementary School is on the move again. This time, the institution will be leaving Downtown.
The school’s board of directors voted to sign a lease for a location at 2635 Pasadena Ave., in Lincoln Heights, for the school year that begins Aug. 22. While the move will allow Metro Charter to have the entire school on a single campus, reversing a split-site system in effect this year, a smaller available space means enrollment will be cut back by 25% from the current school year.
It’s the latest bit of upheaval for a school that was formed by Downtown parents five years ago to serve local families, but has been unable to find a long-term home in a real estate market dominated by rising prices and landlords reticent to commit long-term space to a school.
Metro Charter Board President Chinmaya Misra hopes the Lincoln Heights facility is a temporary solution as school leaders continue to search for a permanent home.
“It was a hard decision as a board to accept the fact that it would mean that for a period of time, we’d have to relocate to a completely different location,” Misra said during a phone call with Los Angeles Downtown News on Tuesday.
The board approved signing a lease for the new location during an emergency meeting on Tuesday, May 22. During the meeting the board also voted to terminate its lease at the 700 Wilshire office building. Metro Charter this year has third through fifth graders attend classes in that Financial District structure, while kindergarten though second graders take a bus to a facility at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church at 2009 W. MLK Blvd in South Los Angeles.
Metro Charter will occupy what is currently a Boys and Girls Club north of Chinatown and L.A. State Historic Park. Misra said that they expect to remain at the facility for at least a year. The lease is for two years.
“The reality is that right now, we had to find a campus where we can carry out the vision of the school without compromising the health of the overall campus,” she said.
Metro Charter launched in South Park’s California Hospital Medical Center in 2013. In its first year it counted 80 kindergarten through second graders and expanded by a grade each year, as in common in start-up charter schools. The plan was always for the site to be temporary.
Metro Charter stayed at the hospital though the end of the 2016/17 academic year. In its final year at the hospital it boasted 250 students with 25 teachers and administrators.
School staff and board members have consistently looked for a long-term home, and have visited scores of sites over the years. Yet as Downtown land values continue to rise, they found themselves repeatedly priced out of spaces, or dealing with landlords who preferred to keep space open for a retail, restaurant or other tenant.
The inability to secure a location prompted the board last year to choose the split-campus plan. Originally younger students were expected to take classes in the Ketchum-Downtown YMCA on Hope Street, but permitting issues prevented that from happening. In August 2017, the board settled on the church location for the younger students.
The split campus has weighed on the morale of the faculty and Metro Charter families, Misra said. Additionally, some parents had to arrange pick-ups and drop-offs at two locations.
“The reality of working on split campuses is our resources get split, our teacher morale goes down because the team is not together, and our administrative staff is stretched thin,” Misra said.
Charter schools being priced out of urban and metropolitan areas is increasingly becoming a problem, said Richard Garcia, communications director for the California Charter Schools Association.
“This trend has made it difficult for charter public schools in Los Angeles to secure adequate, affordable, high-quality facilities, and has forced some charter public schools to re-locate to facilities that are a great distance from where its students and families live,” Garcia said in an email.
The dual-campus approach and the far-flung location for younger students has placed a burden on some families. It prompted others to leave. According to DeJuan Ruffin, director of operations for Metro Charter, the student body fell to 200 students for the current school year.
Numbers will be trimmed again when classes start in three months. The lease caps enrollment at 150 students.
Misra said she hopes that families will keep their children at Metro Charter despite the upheaval, touting the quality of the education and the fact that the campus is still in the Downtown environs.
“It’s not like we’re moving to Santa Monica,” she said. “It’s within a few miles of here. But it might hurt. It’s the risk we’re willing to take to ensure that we regain our consolidated campus back and our families don’t lose faith in us as a community.”
There will be other repercussions. Metro Charter Elementary Principal Kim Clerx said that the school currently has nine teachers, with six permanent and three working on one-year contracts. Although nothing has been finalized, she said it is possible that the year-long contracts will not be renewed.
If the faculty is whittled down to six teachers, she said the school will still operate at a 25:1 student to teacher ratio for the upcoming academic year.
News of the move has parents contemplating their options. Simon Ha, who helped found the school, is uncertain if his daughter will take classes at Metro Charter next year. He also sees the inability to secure a permanent home as a reflection on the greater neighborhood.
“I think moving the school out of the Downtown core signals that we really failed to come together as a community,” he said.
Scott Bytoff, another parent who helped launch Metro Charter, hopes the consolidation of the school in a single location will pay benefits.
“I think some parents are excited about what this campus is going to offer,” he said.
Misra believes there will be some upside over the current situation. Though parents will have to figure out drop-offs and pick-ups outside the Downtown core, she pointed out that the new location provides on-campus play space that had been lacking.
“Any other school takes it for granted,” Misra said. “Our kids haven’t had access to playground space.”
Misra said the Metro Charter team will continue to look for a permanent location. The minutes of board meetings posted on the school’s website shows they have talked to multiple developers about homes in future large Downtown projects. The Lincoln Heights site could also give campus leaders breathing room in a still super-charged economy.
“Hopefully the Downtown market will be ready a year or two from now to bring us back,” Misra said.