Thursday, Feb. 28, 2008 | In Logan Heights, a floundering charter school is seeking a lifeline: A technology-focused school to take its place, and redeem the neighborhood school. The trouble is, another community wants the same buoy, pitting two San Diego neighborhoods against each other in the fight for a prized opportunity for their kids.

The battle comes at a crisis point for Memorial Academy of Learning and Technology, a long-struggling Logan Heights middle school now facing extinction. Board members removed two school leaders this month in a closed-session meeting, with little explanation. Test scores have sagged for years, spurring a stern letter from the school district in December. And a harsh combination of dropping enrollment and budget cuts passed down from the state have gutted its budget by $1 million, according to charter board president Benjamin Prado. Fifteen staffers lost their jobs mid-year, and more layoffs are likely as the school anticipates state cuts.

Teachers and parents are prodding Memorial to relinquish its charter status, and fold back into the district as an ordinary public school. Charter schools are independently run schools that are funded by the state and authorized by local school districts.

“We’re tired of the same situation,” said Mercedes Pacheco, a parent volunteer. “We’re looking to a change. … Magnets bring those kind of opportunities, to open knowledge for our students, for them to be different.”

Magnet schools unite students and staff around a central theme, such as Mandarin Chinese, music or mathematics, and draw students from across the school district. For Memorial, one such program — Millenial Tech Middle School — offers a glimmer of hope. Millenial, a magnet school focused on technology and science, is a new program approved by San Diego Unified schools in 2007, with plans to open this fall. The new school carries more than $2 million in federal grant money, dished out to the school over a three-year period.

That vision excites Memorial teacher Tracey Makings, who cited the high-tech offerings that come with the magnet and its funds.

“Two robotics labs!” said Makings, who teaches eighth grade. “How phenomenal would it be for these students to understand robots?”

When it opens, the school will enroll students from across the city, unlike neighborhood schools, which limit themselves to students within certain boundaries. Yet the question of where to put the school has ignited a firestorm, with two communities vying to host Millenial Tech. Both cite a dearth of high-quality schools in their neighborhoods, framing the magnet school as the solution.

The siting of the school was scheduled to go before the school board Tuesday, but staffers yanked the issue from the agenda, deferring a vote on where Millenial Tech will finally land.

“It’s a shame,” said Richard Barrera, a school board candidate and labor organizer. “There’s got to be some room for creative solutions, where we don’t have communities … competing for solid school options.”

Memorial staffers and parents, unnerved by the school’s tenuous state, want to dissolve their charter and harness the magnet for their site on Logan Avenue. The move would rope in the magnet’s funding — and, Memorial staffers hope, allow the current staff to stay at the site as a group, instead of being scattered through the school district.

To the east, parents in Chollas View are pressing for Millenial Tech to settle into the Gompers High School building, a now-vacant campus to the east of Gompers Charter Middle School. School board member Shelia Jackson touted the Gompers site as “the final leg” of a cluster of science-focused schools in the area. When staffers first dreamed up the magnet, the empty Gompers school was its intended site, she said.

Chollas View, like Logan Heights, lacks local public middle schools for parents, who can either opt for nearby charter schools or put their children on school buses, bound for middle schools elsewhere in the city.

“It fits together as a plan for the community,” Jackson said, strolling through the gardens uphill from the Gompers site. Children use the nearby grounds for outdoor lessons, she said, and have helped to restore the adjacent creek. Memorial “already has issues … and putting a magnet there isn’t going to fix it.”

It’s unclear which option would ultimately be more expensive for San Diego Unified, which faces an $80 million deficit in the coming school year. To house the magnet, Gompers requires more upgrades than Memorial, according to district staffers, but neither option has been definitively priced. Preliminary estimates put the minimum costs of remaking Gompers at $2.3 million and Memorial at $600,000. A third option, sharing space with Mann Middle School, could cost upward of $1 million.

Memorial has been plagued by problems, chief among them a drastic shortfall in student enrollment, which pulls state money into a school. Student numbers plummeted this year after the school district stopped automatically enrolling neighborhood kids in the nearest charter school — an illegal practice, said Peter Rivera, program manager in the district’s Office of School Choice. Memorial also stopped offering ninth grade.

Crafting this year’s budget, Memorial estimated that about 1,050 students would attend — a drop of about 350 students from the previous year. But the shortfall was worse. Only 850 kids walked through its doors. Next year, the school predicts less than 600 students will attend.

State budget cuts compounded the problem. Expecting to lose even more money, Memorial tried to lay off seven teachers in December. Unlike most charter school teachers, Memorial educators are unionized, and can’t be dismissed summarily. The teachers’ union fought the cut, and won, keeping the teachers employed. Instead, the school cut 15 other staffers, including associate director Joe Gama.

“We feel the impact,” Makings said. Litter pocks the campus. Security guards are fewer. On the upside, she said, “I’ve got classes of 20 students. That’s very good for students, but it’s not very good for the budget.”

And Memorial has been racked by overhaul at the top. Staffers agreed that the school has lacked direction, and some are growing frustrated with its governing board. Last week, the principal Marco Curiel and curriculum director Fred Lanuza were put on paid administrative leave. Parents and staffers received no explanation of their removal. Some are still unaware of the change. The action, taken in closed session, was not reported out to the school, said Prado, who declined to discuss the administrative leaves.

“They don’t let us know anything,” Pacheco said. “We just hear rumors. I don’t know if they put [Curiel] aside, or if he resigned. All I know is, he wasn’t there Monday.”

Teachers say they don’t want the turmoil to infect the classroom. Academically, the school has struggled year after year, despite efforts to reshape it. One of San Diego’s oldest schools, Memorial became a charter school in 2000. After falling short of goals set by the federal No Child Left Behind law, the school was forced to restructure, setting itself up as an independent nonprofit in 2005. The change didn’t show up in test scores, which remain dismal.

Prado said the testing is a poor measure of students’ success, especially Spanish-speaking students who are being tested in English.

“Philosophically, our board believes that standardized testing doesn’t measure the aptitudes of our students, and their creativity,” Prado said. “We’re taking a different approach — providing multicultural studies, so students can articulate their lived experience.”

San Diego Unified is unconvinced. In December, district staffers contacted Memorial, warning that if scores don’t improve, the district may turn down the school’s charter. Community members are alarmed by the school’s state, and the California Charter School Association has deemed it “not eligible for certification.”

“New administrators year after year, teachers leaving — it’s made it really difficult,” said David Alvarez, a Memorial graduate who lives three blocks from the school. “It seems like people have lost the energy. The leadership isn’t there. It needs to be revitalized.”

In the Millenial Tech magnet, both Logan Heights and Chollas View see that chance.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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