Looking like a marine-life museum with a water slide, and erected despite almost no curriculum planning, the posh Performing Arts school underwent a calamitous first year, and its principal, Suzanne Blake, is being removed. At Santee Complex, near the 10 and 110 freeway junction, more than 40 percent of kids drop out, it has fallen in just five years to the poor "similar school" rank of 2 in California, and LAUSD had so many problems running it that Santee is being operated instead by Antonio Villaraigosa's group, Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

Principal Barry uses language that makes skills-based reformers like Callaghan wince. Like the founding principals at Santee and Performing Arts, Barry is not focused on a rigorous curriculum as a way to fix Ninth Street. "I can't say exactly what those needs will be in three years," she insists, describing her future students.

School Board President Garcia declined to talk about Ninth Street Elementary with the Weekly. She represents the failing school because it falls within the jurisdiction of her downtown and Eastside district seat on the school board. Yet during her tenure she has shown little public interest in the curriculum and academic disaster unfolding there. She has, however, been intensely interested in $54 million in new buildings.

"They don't want their kids selling tamales. They want college." —The Rev. Alice Callaghan, Jardin de la Infancia
"They don't want their kids selling tamales. They want college." —The Rev. Alice Callaghan, Jardin de la Infancia
First-grade teacher Elizabeth Chavez at the whiteboard with Leslie Alvarez in the all-English class
First-grade teacher Elizabeth Chavez at the whiteboard with Leslie Alvarez in the all-English class

Of that cost, up to $12 million is from the nonprofit Para Los Niños, which will operate a charter school for sixth- through eighth-graders there. According to Diekmann and others, Garcia is outraged that the mostly poor Latino students learn in trailers, with no cafeteria or auditorium.

The campus, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence and looks like a temporary military outpost, could use a face-lift. But the hyperfocus on buildings, and not on what is taught inside, is a frequent failing at LAUSD, where the children of poor and often illegal immigrants tend to be handled as political pawns.

Former LAUSD board member David Tokofsky says the multimillion-dollar project suggests district officials are more concerned with showing off new schools, and the high district dropout rate tells the story. "The district has an edifice complex," says Tokofsky. "Socrates taught under a tree. There are nations that don't have the wealth or school buildings we have, but teach literacy and math well."

Para Los Niños is, however, going to focus on curriculum when Ninth Street Elementary reopens. Andrea Purcell, the organization's director of new schools, tells the Weekly that since the LAUSD school will be a "feeder" into the Para Los Niños–run middle school, she expects her group to be "very involved" with how students at every grade level at Ninth Street are taught. "It is part of the partnerships we will be developing," says Purcell.

Purcell says Para Los Niños, which currently operates an elementary charter school downtown, strongly recommends to immigrant parents that their Spanish-speaking children first be taught in Spanish until their English improves. It will bring that philosophy and an experimental program from Italy called the "Reggio Emilia Approach," which promotes a "self-guided" curriculum.

"We know from the research that it's best to be taught in the first language," Purcell says.

But it's the kind of education Callaghan and the immigrant parents at Las Familias del Pueblo fought against because it didn't work.

Para Los Niños' embrace of trends from past decades has yet to produce lasting academic results. The existing charter school's statewide test scores are not good, and it received a poor 2 out of 10 from the Great Schools Web site partly funded by Bill Gates. Great Schools gave the same bad ranking of 2 to Ninth Street. (Brentwood Science, where Callaghan sends many pupils, got an 8.)

And Para Los Niños was also given a 2 in the "similar schools" ranking statewide in 2009, after earning a solid 7 the previous year.

Callaghan has been begging California state officials to test her Jardin charter-school kindergarten and first-grade students on how well they read, write and do their arithmetic — and by extension, on how much they love school — but the state of California doesn't test children in any greade before second.

When Ninth Street reopens in 2013, it seems the adults in charge are preparing to repeat the political and education wars over immigrant students that have been fought on Skid Row for decades.

It's lunchtime at Jardin de la Infancia, where first-grade and kindergarten students sit at round tables next to jammed bookshelves, eating sandwiches and sipping from juice boxes. The classroom is calm and relatively quiet, and Callaghan sits a few feet away, keeping an eye on the children and making sure they don't skip lunch.

These days, Callaghan doesn't think too much about the public school down the street, where kids from her day-care center went to school for years and returned to Las Familias del Pueblo to complete their homework. Callaghan and her staff acted as tutors, consistently noticing that the assigned English and math lessons were well below what the kids could handle.

Says Callaghan, "It's a terrible school. Nobody can get a good education there. We have to send our kids all the way across town to Brentwood."

Callaghan and Zuzy Chavez, the director of Jardin de la Infancia, came upon Brentwood Science Magnet School — a spacious, tree-filled campus that sits across from Brentwood Country Club and near the neighborhood's upscale shopping district on San Vicente Boulevard — after meticulously researching the top magnet schools in Los Angeles. It's the kind of extra effort the two women undertake at their charter school.

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