Raising Pitchforks Against Our Own Best Interest
14 Thursday May 2015
BOC, CEQA, Colocation, community opposition, DEIR, displacement, dual-language immersion, EIR, gentrification, LAUSD, Mandarin Immersion, Mark Twain Middle School, NIMBY, School bonds, school construction, Traffic congestion, traffic gridlock, traffic mitigation, Venice Animo Charter HS, Walgrove traffic
The 405 interstate scissors down Los Angeles’ westside, demarcating an archipelago of geopolitically distinct communities that all share one singular, contiguous malady: traffic. Transportation and more generally Urban Planning, has been so poorly managed across the entire westside – and this over the course of two decades or more — that our general Quality of Life is significantly impacted and our tolerance regarding its demise likewise affected.
Traffic snafus are especially gnarly through a swath sandwiched between Santa Monica and Culver City known as Mar Vista (“where we can see it from our rooftops”), because the 405 physically constricts east-west traffic flow into a discrete number of too-few Boulevard-arteries: Jefferson, Venice, Palms, National, Pico, Olympic, Mississippi, Wilshire, Sunset – apologies for missing some and misspelling or mis-designating others.
As a result traffic is bottlenecked, and cars squeeze out the interstices and into residential neighborhoods in a vain attempt to avoid gridlock.
North-south the situation is even worse.
West of the 405 the north-south corridors are insufficient in number, uniformly broken, and too narrow. Yet nearly all capacity to skirt sideways, as noted already, is curtailed. There is Pacific Ave, 11th and 14th Sts in SM, Lincoln, Walgrove, Beethoven, Wade, Centinela, Grand View, Inglewood, McLaughlin and Sawtelle. Some of these are capillary-sized, nearly impassable streets, where drivers weave in and out of open parking slots and periodically back up to permit their transit-sparring partners right-of-way. These tricky maneuvers are nevertheless preferable to utilizing the region’s sclerosed “arteries”, which are simply parking lots by another name.
Throughout the score of my years resident here, various schemes have been floated to soften this quagmire, including arcane, and sometimes anti-intuitive or NIMBY solutions like renaming streets to disallow through-traffic, incorporating “share” lanes for bicycles along roadways sporadically and briefly approaching interstate speeds, restriping and reducing lane space, and so forth. Incredibly, six thousand (6,000) housing units were lately approved in Playa Vista straight on top of this mess, with nary an infrastructure support or traffic mitigation floated to appease current suffering.
The upshot is a civic disaster that can hardly be said to have materialized overnight. These traffic woes with their concomitant short social-fuses are the result of systematic, long-term negligence by our municipal government in overseeing human needs here on the westside, a neglect borne by its citizens perforce over the course of decades, as increasing traffic, congestion and population steadily diminishes our Quality of Life.
Thus the stage is set for local fury directed belatedly and indiscriminately toward any development project proposed for this area, independent of merit, necessity or extenuating circumstance. Swept on a torrent of outrage regarding administrative heedlessness, LAUSD’s proposal to address its diminishing enrollment by obliging that pedagogy which is favored among new denizens of “Silicon Beach”, language immersion programs, has encountered vociferous, caustic and unreasoned occlusion.
Five years ago LAUSD heeded the request of an avant-garde elementary school principal in concert with young, local parents, to endorse a Mandarin Immersion program (MIP) under the same roof as their local Venice neighborhood district public school. Very quickly it was apparent that the program featuring learning-in-two-languages was so wildly popular that it would constrain all future enrollment at this school, whether through its MIP, its regular neighborhood district program or a subsequent, Spanish Immersion program (SIP) enacted in response to demand for locally-demographically-appropriate dual-language learning. This campus was just too small, parsed in 2004 into separate charter and public school campuses by then-LAUSD board president Marlene Canter who now sits on the BOD of precisely that charter corporation granted the munificence of a long-term lease of public land for private gain.
This private concern is Green Dot Schools, specializing in claims to “achieve better student outcomes with the same student population“, and this particular microcosm provides a perfect study of how optics trumps reality. Animo Venice Charter HS, squatting on hugely valuable public commons real estate at the back of this overcrowded, postage-stamp sized plot of land in Venice, graduated a decidedly low but quite possibly statistically equivalent proportion of its matriculating (convenience-sampled) 2008/09 class compared with LAUSD’s nearby Venice High School (VHS): 48% v. 45% . Yet these are not equivalent schools or student populations. Animo HS is ethnically and economically overwhelmingly less diverse than its local district counterpart; the ratio of Hispanic to African-American (AfAm) students is 11.5:1 and 6.4:1 respectively. The ratio of Whites to AfAm students cannot even be calculated at Animo since there were zero white students. The ratio of (Whites+Asian+Filipino) students was 0.1:1 and 1.3:1 at Animo and VHS respectively. There were 20% fewer “socioeconomically disadvantaged” students at Animo and 82% fewer “English Learners”. [All this notwithstanding that “graduation” is an empty term without examining the quality and content of that studied as well; these statistics (from CA Department of Education’s “DataQuest“) are merely a back-of-the-envelope eye-opener.] Large, public claims can distract attention from true underlying social and educational dynamics. Neighborhood charter schools are sequestering and segregating social populations. And this annexation was an early sequestration of public land that has resulted ultimately, recently, in local social and educational chaos, the formative neoliberal maneuverings of a global school privatization movement essentially unremarked by local media then or now.
Efforts to re-situate the MIP encountered opposition consistent with any school communities’ partisan reluctance to share resources with another program, regardless of district status, whether run by LAUSD (the MIP is neither magnet, charter nor private) or chartered by it through direct or non-direct economic affiliation, or chartered through a different Education entity altogether (State, County). “School co-location” is inherently violent because as it happens, partisanship is common to any and all well-functioning institution. When and because an institution is functioning well, its denizens will rally and support it, to the exclusion of outsiders whose presence would reduce available facilities. This healthy reaction is indicative of institutional success, rather than the opposite which is often ironically levied as justification for colocation in the first place. The internal strife sparked by scrabbling for diminishing resources — themselves merely a casualty of enormous external political ideologies — is profoundly disruptive of classroom learning, as well as any reasoned discourse for community-level Planning, including the subject of this particular conflagration, the imperative to house this MI program more suitably.
Nonetheless, in accordance with the MIP’s immediate housing needs, its future pedagogical responsibility toward primary students approaching secondary school age, and its appeal to young families otherwise tempted by private schools outside of LA Unified School District, the (LAUSD) Bond Oversight Committee was solicited for funds dedicated to addressing ground-up, the housing needs of this meritorious and popular program located, coincidentally, in a region of LAUSD historically underrepresented for new construction.
And thus began the recent tempest surrounding a project to construct housing for the MIP on the pedagogically harmonious Mark Twain Middle School (MTMS) campus in neighboring Mar Vista. Part of the “VenMar” family of schools with an “articulated pathway” of language-oriented learning from middle on up through the neighboring Senior HS campus (VHS), this particular learning community has classrooms and academic synergy to spare.
However, it does not have a surrounding community of residents sympathetic to the enrollment challenges of young families or the public school district, or patience with the historically bankrupt (see above) process of negotiating municipal mitigation and Planning improvements.
Thus while this “Project” in fact offers Mar Vista precisely that panacea of opportunity long sought for forcing traffic mitigations of the city, such muscle is contingent on instigating a building project that compels renegotiation of Planning outrages.
The good news is, the Project is entirely meldable to community priorities, when and if articulated compellingly. Mar Vista and Venice both have a long, dedicated history of commitment to sustainable living and environmental appreciation. Having suffered incremental loss of open space in lockstep with increasing traffic congestion and population density, any further loss of public space is understandably insupportable by residents, understood as a priority for Mar Vistans that is inalienable.
And so this MI project proposed for MTMS only ever was, and continues to be, eminently negotiable to maximal advantage for both learning and residential communities on the westside. The best — perhaps only, hope of achieving meaningful, functioning traffic mitigation and urban planning in this area, is to engage in projects that the “other” – that is municipal, “side” wants — nay “needs”. Details of lost acreage would and must be addressed jointly, renegotiated to harmonize community and educational priorities.
But there is simply no profit from obdurate refusal in the face of sweeping, community-wide advantage derived from engaging this proposal regarding the MTMS campus. And the bad news is that this surge of community-wide ill will is precisely what has been fomented as collateral damage of this long-term municipal neglect, to the enduring injury of Mar Vista.
LAUSD “needs” these popular learning-in-two-languages programs because the district needs to be responsive to the styles of education that young families want, that work, that everyone “needs” pedagogically. Our democratic government being simply of, for and by the people, a symbiotic relationship of need and participation is inherent. Without matriculants, the school system dies, without a program that attracts people, democracy and schools – either or both – simply waste away. Schools are funded, naturally, as a function of how many children they serve. With less resources, they can serve fewer children, and do so increasingly inefficiently; in like measure democracy works as a function of its participants – when voters fail to vote, government in the name of its voters, the people, ceases to be democratic.
There is thus undeniable need from all quarters, and therefore every reason to believe negotiations are – indeed remain — viable.
But more care must inform the “optics” surrounding this drama.
Thirty million dollars invested in new westside educational infrastructure is a benefit to all; its contrast with neighboring visually-and reputation-distressed schools an issue that highlights our society’s structural disregard for children and constitutive under-resourcing of services for them. This project is not evidence of inequitable favoritism for transients, it is evidence of deep-seated societal disparity; it is the vanguard of normalizing education by reintegrating public district schools socioeconomically.
It is rather when one school leaches resources directly from another, that there is a facultative policy problem, a matter of civil rights, abused. But this MIP hopes to address the issue of leaching resources by growing enrollment through the gratifying of demand for desired educational programs, and housing the program sustainably among shared campus resources, without simultaneously diminishing any current institutions’ prerogative. To the extent that constructing new facilities alongside beleaguered old ones highlights infrastructural neglect, this project would grow the means to draw monies for addressing the neglect. To the extent that largesse conferred among one set of new-comers appears superior to that suffered nextdoor among long-term, struggling neighbors, LAUSD must quite simply be more transparent in articulating that benefit to all westsiders both direct and acquired, which belies the appearance of prejudice or wastefulness.
There is not enough money to go around. But this proposed chunk of change quite possibly is well-spent. Its cost:benefit analysis requires resolving long-term gain with immediate gratification, and these are always hard issues to weigh on a single scale. Monetizing or appreciating long-term derivative gain, especially when speculative, is a tall order. If this Project indeed encourages LAUSD enrollment, more money will follow the project; new facilities are expensive but a constant between LAUSD districts, this district is underpar; rejuvenation is a many-splendored prospect so it is not inevitable that a new facility will diminish an aging neighbor; resources can be shared and negotiated, and even ultimately augmented, such that jointly these “float the boat” of an entire educational complex.
Superior schools, like a string of successful restaurants located in close proximity within a dynamic business district, confer a community-advantage to all present.
And deteriorating schools, like a spooky property with mysterious tenants, must be disinfected with sunshine and structural support to reveal that which is valuable within.
Beethoven ES, Walgrove ES, Mark Twain MS and Venice HS are each neighborhood schools with unique programs that serve their communities well, which in turn display a chauvinism reflective of stakeholder’s appreciation for their community specifically.
In normalizing a pathway for future enrollment it is important that the resources available normally to neighborhood schools reflect its needs. From open space and attractive appearances to well-mannered traffic flow and well-staffed schools, these are the conditions that inform development. Fixing what needs attention is progress, and this Project provides multiple opportunities to actually improve our community in many dimensions, simultaneously – a serendipity that would be imprudent to squander.
But the complexity of this proposal has set up a smokescreen of sentiment so opaque one wonders what really underlies the emotion. To the extent that this school heralds a future direction in public education, it is iconic of a receding past that is painful to relinquish.
This community has recently, in a similarly vociferous way, surrendered large, iconic, social-public institutions into the past. These emblematic changes don’t go over easily and they don’t necessarily make for positive forward social progress. As these hallmarks slip away, more than just landmarks are displaced, jobs, housing, mores and attitudes change. A residue of anger remains so that with successive change, like a secondary immune reaction, the social fuse becomes shorter and the response stronger.
There are problems to address within and beside the proposed MIP Project at MTMS. But single-minded refusal to consider complexity bankrupts the Common’s prerogative to improve our community. This proposal exists in a context of broadly configured common-good, supported diversity, social equity, educational continuity and community. To respond with reflexive, and generic censure is counter-productive.