August 14, 2008
Charter School is No Shop Class
By Melissa Pamer
When Carson's first new school in years begins classes next month, the campus will be a teenager's dream.
It's in a shopping mall.
New Millennium Secondary School, which will welcome its initial freshman class in September, will be at the Southbay Pavilion, between JCPenney and Chuck E. Cheese.
"Most parents worry that if their kids skip school, they go to the mall," said Carson resident Tony Thomas, who will have a daughter and a grandson at the campus in a few weeks. "Now my kid is already in the mall."
Thomas, a Carson activist who has helped the school reach out to local churches to find prospective students, asked school administrators Monday how they would ensure his children's safety.
Students will not be allowed in the shopping area during the school day, Principal Donna Hackner assured Thomas. She pointed to stringent campus security measures, which include 21 video cameras.
Anyway, despite the school's unusual site, shopping isn't on the agenda.
The technology-focused independent charter school, which was approved by the Los Angeles Unified School District in June after being in the planning stage for almost two years, will offer a college preparatory curriculum.
Through the charter's partnerships with Santa Monica College and nearby California State University, Dominguez Hills, students will be able to take college classes. And, if they complete the necessary requirements and graduate, they'll be guaranteed admission to CSUDH.
"This is such an opportunity for children in Carson," said Hackner, who was recruited to the school from the Los Angeles County Office of Education, where she trained teachers and administrators to use educational technology.
"Some students just don't do well in a big school. This is an alternative," Hackner said.
The school is one of two similarly named charter high schools in Carson that were given permission by LAUSD to open in the coming school year. The other school, Millennium Charter High School, which promised a hip-hop-infused curriculum, recently agreed to change its name, New Millennium Executive Director Tony Kline said.
The status of that school could not be confirmed because one phone number listed for the school was disconnected and a message left at a second listed number was not returned.
The philosophy of New Millennium, which has received more than $1 million in grants in the past year from the foundations of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and others, comes from a desire to counter the United States' slipping global competitiveness academically, Kline said.
The United States came in 15th of 46 nations in eighth-grade math performance in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in 2003, the most recent year for which such data is available.
"Math is the one (score) we were most scared of because it tends to be tied to innovation," Kline said.
As with all charter schools, there's no charge for tuition at New Millennium. Unlike magnet programs, to which students must apply and be accepted based on academic criteria, charter schools may not "cream" top students. Admission will be based on a lottery if more than 150 students apply.
As of this week, about 130 students from 26 middle schools have registered for the 150 ninth-grade spaces, Kline said. About three- quarters of the students are black, and most of the remaining students are Latino, along with a handful of Filipinos and whites, Kline said.
This summer the school spent more than $35,000 on advertising to garner interest, he said.
Parent Gail Chatman was hooked as soon as a friend tipped her off to a newspaper ad.
"From that point on, I was blown away," she said Monday as she toured the campus with her 14-year-old son and future student Joshua, who was quick to ask about basketball.
(The school will have a team that will practice at Victoria Community Regional Park.)
Since the school took over the former site of Maric College last month, the 22,000-square-foot space has been undergoing last-minute renovations while the school's eight teachers - who were hired from a pool of 250 applicants and are receiving higher pay than at their previous jobs - work on lesson plans and staff set up desks in empty classrooms.
They're preparing for something of an experiment that stems from a more than a year of research by Kline and co-founder Rebecca Bunn, head of the Riordan Foundation, at high-achieving charter schools around the country. Kline hopes New Millennium will eventually be a model for other local campuses.
High expectations are part of the plan, Kline said. New Millennium's school day will last from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., longer than traditional public schools. An after-school program will be offered until 6p.m. each day. And the campus will have 190 instructional days, two weeks more than LAUSD offers.
"If we had it our way, it would be 220 (days), but that might have been a shock to 15-year-olds," said Kline, who was most recently deputy chairman of the Frank and Kathy Baxter Foundation, which gave $180,000 toward the school.
The school will offer each student a laptop - after they've proved themselves to be sufficiently responsible in the first semester. Tests will be given on computers to speed up the grading process and help teachers more quickly retool their lesson plans in response to student needs. Many classes will use "response clickers," like those used in "Jeopardy!", so that instructors can monitor student comprehension.
More than $250,000 has been spent on servers and wireless systems.
The school is able to afford all this because, Kline said, "We just cut all the fat off."
The charter has only four nonteaching employees and no football team or band to fund.
"Not to call a football team 'fat,' but it's not helping us compete against Beijing," Kline said.
The school has also been helped by its mall location, which Hackner said was a "godsend."
Many charters have trouble finding adequate facilities that are up to code for educational purposes, or they must spend a lot of money on upgrades. New Millennium officials said they got lucky with the Southbay Pavilion site, which was largely ready to go because it had served as a college since 2000.
The mall's management has also been pleased with the move, which was solidified last month with a 10-year lease agreement.
The two parties have worked together to make sure students are safe and not disruptive to mall activities, said Sharron King, Southbay Pavilion general manager.
"Hopefully we'll be able to make sure the students only go to Chuck E. Cheese at an appropriate time," King said.
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