DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - When Trisha Kendrick moved to Downtown in 2005 the city lifestyle fit her perfectly. It was fun, fast-paced, hip and she was single with no kids.
Even after getting married and giving birth to her daughter Nazeli, she never planned to leave the neighborhood.
Now that Nazeli is three years old and nearing elementary school age, there is one thing Kendrick has not been able to find in Downtown. And that one need will drastically change her lifestyle.
"There just aren't any schools where I can take her," Kendrick said. "I gave up trying to find one that works for us."
Kendrick is now doing what she thought she would never do. She's packing up her current home at the Pegasus Apartments and moving 140 miles away to Rancho Mirage, a quiet city near Palm Springs where golf courses and front lawns are as common as high-rises and traffic are in Downtown.
Facing the Challenge
The challenge of finding an elementary school in Downtown is one many residents like Kendrick will continue to face.
According to a recently released demographic study by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, 6.3% of neighborhood households have children under the age of five living at home. That's about 1,853 kids. Typically, children start elementary school by age 5.
Close to 4.8% of Downtown households have children between the ages of 5 and 18 living at home, or about 1,534 kids at or older than elementary school age. Another 12% of Downtown residents said they plan to start a family soon.
Those that have older kids have options like the state-of-the-art High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center and several charter schools.
For those with kids approaching elementary school age, however, the nearby options remain few.
In Downtown, the elementary school options include the Para Los Niños charter school near Seventh and Alameda streets. Until recently, parents also might have chosen the public Ninth Street Elementary, but it is closed for refurbishment in 2009 and will open again in 2013.
LAUSD officials said there are no plans to open another elementary school in the core of Downtown. But there are still several options with district schools in Chinatown and around the outskirts of the area, like Tenth Street Elementary near Olympic Boulevard and Union Avenue.
When Ninth Street reopens, it will offer classes for K-8 students with room for 450 students in K-5. The school previously taught about 360 K-6 students.
Hal Bastian, senior vice president and director of economic development for the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, said that while there are elementary school choices in Downtown, he hears from parents living in central Downtown that they want schools closer to their homes, and more options in terms of the types of schools.
"We know from talking to people with kids that there is a need for elementary education here in Downtown L.A.," he said. "We feel that Downtown is a terrific place to raise a family. We have lots of elementary schools in Downtown Los Angeles. But parents prefer it to be closer."
According to the study, 63% of Downtown residents were likely to school their children near their residence, with 28% preferring a private school, 21% preferring public school and 14% favoring a charter school.
Unlike Kendrick, who saw the options and opted to move to the desert, other Downtown parents are making the best of the choices they have.
South Park resident and neighborhood activist Susana Benavidez has never considered leaving Downtown to raise her 6- and 5-year-old daughters.
During her search for an elementary school, which began about three years ago, she had a spreadsheet with information on schools near USC, as well as other schools. She was also in contact with charter schools hoping to lure one to Downtown by the time her children were of school age.
Those plans didn't pan out, but she found a happy solution when she signed up her daughters during open enrollment for Solano Elementary School, a high-performing public school located near Dodger Stadium, almost three miles from her South Park home.
"It's a good school, so I love it, feel really really lucky," she said. Benavidez, who started a Facebook group called Downtown LA Parents which has more than 100 members, said about 10 parents from the group have children attending Solano. "There are several parents already going there. This year there are even more parents, so there's a nice sense of community."
Benavidez would still like more options closer to the Downtown core.
"We do need a school in Downtown," she said. "I don't feel like the issue has been properly addressed. It takes years to open a new school. We really should be looking at that now before it starts to drive other families away."
Recognizing the need a few years ago, the BID began a search for a new school. It tried recruiting several private school operators, but the effort was derailed by the recession, Bastian said.
"Real estate is not inexpensive," Bastian said. "But I know private schools are interested. I talk to them."
Meanwhile plans for more charter schools in Downtown have not fared well. In 2008 Ted Morris, founding director of the Futuro College Preparatory Elementary School in Rosemead, received approval from the LAUSD to open two charter schools - an elementary and a middle school that were initially planned for the Boyle Heights area.
The charter middle school, called Endeavor, has opened. It shares a space with Ann Street Elementary School in Chinatown. But plans for a new Downtown charter elementary school never materialized.
"We were never able to find a location," Morris said. "There's need all over. The challenge is the facilities issues, but there are plenty of families that would be interested."
For those that are interested, Elena Stern, vice president of external affairs for Para Los Niños, said their charter school is an often-overlooked option. Currently, most students are the children of blue-collar parents who work Downtown in the garment industry, she said.
"We have had a few of the newer residents coming from lofts but not too many," she said. "We don't know why. I think perhaps because we're a very well kept secret and we are in the industrial side of Downtown and not smack in the middle."
The school was chartered by the LAUSD in 2002 and holds about 400 K-6 students. Stern pointed to the school's rising test scores as a reason it should be considered by Downtown parents.
According to Stern, the Para Los Niños charter elementary and middle school's Academic Performance Index - the API measures a school's academic performance and growth on a scale of 200-1,000 - rose from 708 in 2010 to 831 in 2011.
"There are schools in Downtown and surrounding Downtown, and it's obviously a parent's choice," she said.
As Kendrick prepares for her Oct. 1 move, she does so with a sense of disappointment, she said.
"When I moved here I was single with no kids so it was perfect, but raising kids in Downtown L.A. is not the easiest thing," Kendrick said. "If there had been a school nearby I would have definitely stayed in the neighborhood."
Contact Richard Guzmán at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©Los Angeles Downtown News.