Roberson squeezes in one more lesson before her students leave for the day. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)
By Mitchell Landsberg, Doug Smith and Howard Blume

Over the last decade, a quiet revolution took root in the nation's second-largest school district.

Fueled by money and emboldened by clout from some of the city's most powerful figures, charter schools began a period of explosive growth that has challenged the status quo in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Today, Los Angeles is home to more than 160 charter schools, far more than any other U.S. city. Charter enrollment is up nearly 19% this year from last, while enrollment in traditional L.A. public schools is down. And a once-hostile school board has become increasingly charter-friendly, despite resistance from the teachers union. In September, the board agreed to let charters bid on potentially hundreds of existing campuses and on all 50 of its planned new schools.

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Charter schools now are challenging L.A. Unified from without and within. Not only are charter school operators such asGreen Dot Public Schools and ICEF Public Schools opening new schools that compete head-to-head with L.A. Unified, but the district's own schools are showing increasing interest in jumping ship by converting to charter status.

In the most recent example, Birmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Lake Balboa broke free from the district last summer after a wrenching battle among members of its teaching staff. Under state law, a school can apply for charter conversion if a majority of its tenured teachers petition for the change.

Charters are taking students not just from traditional public schools but also from private schools. Particularly as the economy has soured, many parents see no reason to pay for school if they believe that a charter might offer a similar education without tuition.

"I am very happy," said Ninet Ramirez, whose daughter had attended Catholic schools before enrolling in the Los Angeles International Charter High School near Highland Park. "They challenge her more," Ramirez said. "That's what I wanted."

Key reform strategy

The charter movement amounts to a tectonic shift in the educational landscape, the most far-reaching effort to reform Los Angeles schools in recent history. It puts L.A. Unified in sync with the Obama administration, which champions charters as a key reform strategy.

Yet the change was largely unplanned and unorganized, scarcely noticed for years outside of small circles of parents and educators, and it remains widely misunderstood.

Even now, there are those who believe that charter schools are private (they aren't), that they are run by for-profit companies (rarely in California), that they primarily serve affluent communities (the opposite is true) and that they are better than traditional public schools.

This last idea is driving desperate parents to charters in droves, people such as Katrina Calvert of Compton, who yanked her daughter out of their neighborhood school and took her to the Fernando Pullum Performing Arts High School, a new charter in the South Park neighborhood in South L.A.

"Thank God we're here!" she declared. "It's a breath of fresh air compared to where we came from."

Overall, L.A. charter students score significantly higher on standardized tests than their counterparts in traditional schools. But even some of the most strenuous charter advocates are wary of a blanket assumption that charters are superior, in part because they are so different from traditional schools and from one another.

Citywide, charter performance is so mixed that speaking broadly about it is like talking about the quality of fish. What kind of fish? Salmon? Goldfish?

Nearly 9% of Los Angeles public school students now attend charters, which offer great variety. Ocean Charter, a predominantly white, middle-class school on the Westside, emphasizes "experiential learning" based on the Waldorf model. The Alliance for College Ready Schools, whose 16 schools south and east of downtown mostly serve low-income black and Latino students, use a strict and structured adherence to state curriculum standards.

They include small, scrappy operations like New Los Angeles Charter, a 150-student middle school that carved space out of a church in the mid-Wilshire area, and institutional behemoths like Granada Hills Charter High School, a former L.A. Unified school that is probably the largest charter school in the nation, with more than 4,000 students.

There are charters dedicated to learning through dance, through science, even through German language and culture. Most, however, offer a fairly traditional curriculum -- more traditional, in many ways, than regular public schools.

Critics of charters tend to focus on three main arguments: Charters "cherry pick" the best students from traditional schools; kick out students who do poorly; and serve far fewer special education students and non-English speakers than traditional schools. Such practices could give charters a boost in standardized test scores, the primary gauge by which schools are judged.

There is at least anecdotal evidence to support all three claims, although there is hard data only to back up the third -- that charters enroll fewer disabled and limited-English students.

By law, charter schools are required to enroll any interested student or use a lottery, but even some charter operators allow that the schools tend to attract families who are especially motivated. And although charter administrators generally say that they rarely, if ever, expel students, staff at traditional schools say they periodically receive troubled students who have been counseled out of charters.

In fact, classes of motivated, focused, non-disruptive students are a drawing card for charters, as are their small size and apparent safety.

These were the attractions for Highland Park resident Rosa Rivas, who moved her sixth-grade foster son to a charter school several years ago after he was beaten up at his traditional school and began to ditch class.

"It was a constant battle to get him to school," she said. At the charter, "there was not an attraction of gangs. There was not intimidation. They're smaller. There's more control over the kids. There's no gangbanging in the school. That was my main thing: safety."

Some are struggling

Although much of the focus on charters has been on the high fliers that are outstripping the performance of regular district schools, others have struggled.

Even a sophisticated charter organization like Green Dot achieves mixed results. With 18 schools and a comprehensive headquarters staff, Green Dot is practically a district unto itself. But although its campuses typically outscore nearby traditional schools, fewer than 5% of students at several of its campuses scored at the "proficient" level in math last year.

Green Dot would argue that the scores are low because it is taking students from the most academically deprived parts of the city, which is undeniably true. It took over Locke High School in South L.A., which had become a poster child for the failings of L.A. Unified.

Under its management, Locke is seeing progress; becoming safer and more orderly; and retaining more students. But the school's abysmally low test scores have yet to improve.

Another charter, Dosan/ABC, collapsed last year amid accusations of financial mismanagement and an internal struggle over control, including teacher resignations that left students scrambling to enroll at other schools.

For all that, there is no denying the very real accomplishments of the charter movement in Los Angeles.

Consider College Ready Academy No. 4, an Alliance school where 97% of the 325 students qualify for subsidized meals, a poverty indicator.

Academy No. 4 occupies a cluster of bungalows wedged onto an abandoned piece of L.A. Unified property that sits almost directly beneath the intersection of the 110 and 10 freeways downtown. L.A. Unified couldn't put a school there--district policy prohibits new schools within 500 feet of a freeway.

This year, the school had an Academic Performance Index score of 846, more than 200 points higher on average than schools that the state deemed similar, based on the students they serve. Only four of 132 high schools in Los Angeles had higher scores, and two of them are charters.

"I don't think charter schools, in and of themselves, are a panacea," said Alliance founder Judy Burton, a former L.A. Unified senior administrator.

"All of it is about hard work and being clear about what you're trying to accomplish, having clear, high expectations for kids and working to accomplish what it is you said you were going to do without having to suddenly do something new because somebody new is in charge," she said.

Started in 1992

Charter schools got their start in California in 1992, when the Legislature authorized the creation of public schools that could operate outside most Education Code requirements and free of school district bureaucracies.

The idea was to create model schools that would test innovative practices. If they didn't post better standardized test scores than traditional schools, they could be closed.

Sixty-four have had their charters revoked for a variety of failings, almost all involving fiscal or administrative mismanagement. More than 200 others have closed, according to the California Department of Education, in many cases because their charters were not renewed. More than 800 charters operate in the state.

Records obtained by The Times do not show a single case of a California charter school closed solely for poor academic performance, and some charter advocates believe this apparent leniency has done their cause a disservice.

Although there have been charter schools in Los Angeles since the early 1990s, the movement took flight early in this decade behind such figures as philanthropist Eli Broad, former school board president Caprice Young, former Mayor Richard Riordan and a long list of teachers and principals who were fed up by the ever-shifting reform agendas of Los Angeles Unified -- and by what many saw as a recalcitrant teachers union, the powerful United Teachers Los Angeles.

"The whole thing needs to be leveled," said Brian Bauer, principal of Granada Hills Charter High School, speaking of the school district.

Bauer and others dedicated themselves to building a parallel structure of charter schools that, they hoped, would eventually suck the district dry by drawing away its students.

"We kind of looked around and saw that the capacity of the district to swallow enormous amounts of money was unchallengeable, insurmountable, as was its ability to sweep away reforms . . . with the stroke of a pen or the lock on an office," said Ted Mitchell, a key player in a series of local educational reform efforts who chairs the state Board of Education.

With 19 new charters opening within Los Angeles Unified this fall, there are now 161 authorized by the district. (There are also schools within the district that are chartered by the county or state.)

Broad improvement

Among the goals of the charter movement from its inception was pushing traditional public schools to improve. In some cases, that might be happening.

View Park Preparatory Charter, an ICEF elementary school, has seen steady growth in test scores.

Six years ago, it appeared to provide a superior option to the nearest traditional elementary school, Fifty-Fourth Street Elementary, at least as far as test scores were concerned. But an interesting thing happened: Fifty-Fourth Street, whose students tend to come from poorer families, improved at a faster rate.

This year, it nearly caught up with View Park in English scores and surpassed it in math.

Whether this is the result of competition from the charter, an emphasis on testing or some other reason is hard to say.

Mike Piscal, ICEF's tough-talking founder, runs 13 schools in South L.A. and has set a goal of effectively taking over the district's role in that part of the city.

He sees no future for a district that, he says, sends only about 5% of its students in South L.A. schools to college.

"They're like an airline where only one in 20 passengers arrived at the location where they're trying to go," Piscal said. "They've lost the moral right to have a monopoly on the public schools."

Others see a future in which students have a choice of high-performing charter, magnet or traditional schools. Already, Los Angeles Unified is developing a new breed of traditional schools intended to have charter-like flexibility.

Even the teachers union has shown signs of at least a grudging acceptance of charters, only a few of which are unionized. The union is talking of organizing charters, not just opposing them.

"The union's position on charters has evolved over time," said UTLA Vice President Gregg Solkovits. "I think that the best way to describe our position now is, it's not so much a question of charter or no charter but is it the best school for all students, including special education students, including English language learners?"

Bauer, the Granada Hills principal who wanted the district "leveled," said he actually sees that happening -- but from inside, and by the district's own choice. "I think the current centralized L.A. Unified structure is being leveled by the superintendent and board," he said.

"I think the climate has changed a lot," said Jennifer Epps, principal of , a high-performing elementary school in Historic South-Central.

"I think that just overall, they've been realizing that what they're doing isn't necessarily right for every school . . . and they're saying, 'We don't have the resources to change these schools fast enough. . . . We need other solutions.' "