DTLA—After six years, Downtown Los Angeles’ most important modern experiment in education has ended. Heartache and disappointment run rampant. Many people, including numerous volunteers, made a heroic effort, but early momentum could not be sustained.
As Los Angeles Downtown News reported this month, the board of Metro Charter Elementary School on July 8 voted to shutter the institution. The decision came as the school, which had 300 students in 2017 (when it occupied office space in a South Park hospital), saw enrollment shrivel to fewer than 60 for the upcoming academic year (at a campus in Lincoln Heights). That’s unsustainable, and the board made the difficult decision to close now and allow parents to find an alternative, rather than take similar action closer to the start of classes.
It is time for a serious and likely painful reckoning. Metro Charter suffered from an inability to secure a permanent, affordable home in the heart of Downtown, and a shuffling of campuses, and finally landing outside the Central City, proved a death knell. Now Downtown stakeholders must seek to answer why that was the case.
Was it a result of developers who care only for profits and not a lick about providing a space to better the community? Was Metro Charter hampered by politicians who couldn’t twist arms and help find a solution? Did the board itself have decision-making deficiencies, particularly in the early years when land prices were cheaper? Did the Downtown business community, including the many people adept in real estate matters, fail to step up? Was it something else, or was this result inevitable with a nonprofit operating in a superheated real estate market?
The goal here isn’t to assign blame, but rather to identify what went wrong so that mistakes are not repeated with the next school. For Downtown must soon have a next elementary school, and it must be free and centrally located.
Some people will interject that Downtown has options, among them Ninth Street School, a Para Los Ninos charter school on Seventh Street, and Castelar Elementary School in Chinatown. Those work for many families, but an honest assessment of the situation requires understanding that these schools don’t suffice for everyone, and numerous inhabitants of new market-rate apartments and condos want something similar to the original Metro Charter. Parents will make the decision that is best for them. If the right school doesn’t exist in Downtown, some will leave the area.
The next step is uncertain, but there are options. Metro Charter was sparked by parents who wanted to open a school, and they worked quickly and efficiently, earning the backing of local organizations. That could be replicated. Or a political leader or business group could form an education task force that includes the kind of influential dealmakers who make things happen. Or a generous developer with an under-construction project commits to dedicating sufficient space for a school long-term. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these or something else.
Something must happen, and leaders from multiple Downtown sectors must be involved. Metro Charter was a great idea, but when it comes to education, Downtown can’t live in the past.
Copyright 2019 Los Angeles Downtown News