LAUSD students start the new school year

imageParents, teachers, administrators and even students were in a mood to celebrate the beginning of the new school year. Students in the Los Angeles Unified School District not only started their 2010 summer break a week early, they also ended it a week late. School traditionally starts right after the Labor Day holiday. But this year, budget cuts and furloughs pushed back the first day of school until September 13th.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa kicked off the school year by applauding gains in Academic Performance Index (API) scores, which were released Monday morning. One of the school that saw an increase in its API scores was Santee High School in South Los Angeles. The mayor went there for a morning pep rally. Click to hear about his visit and the pep rally in a story by Ruth Frantz of Annenberg Radio News.

The Academic Performance Index charts the progress made by public school students throughout California. Schools are rated on a scale of 200 to 1000, with a state target score of 800. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, 28 more schoos got an API score of at least 800 this year, up to a total of 173. And, more than half of all LAUSD schools have an API score of 750 or above this year.

imageSeveral schools in South Los Angeles recorded increases in their API scores. For the second year in a row, 99th Street Elementary School in Watts has raised its API, this year by 52 points. In addition to Santee High School, Markham Middle School in Watts recorded growth. All three of those schools are operated by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a collaboration between the City of Los Angeles and LAUSD to turnaround the city’s lowest performing schools.

In addition, the ICEF (Inner City Education Foundation) Public Schools, which operates a network of 15 public charter schools in South L.A. announced today that six of their schools topped the state’s target score of 800. ICEF serves a student population that is 89 percent African-American.

According to a news release put out by ICEF:

“At the elementary level, 4 out of 5 schools exceeded 800, with ICEF Inglewood Elementary scoring a 768 in just its first year in operation. ICEF’s View Park Prep and Frederick Douglass elementary schools are rapidly closing in on 900 points with scores of 891 and 877 respectively … The results show that the ICEF academic model works system-wide and is replicable. The first API score for Frederick Douglass Elementary, which opened last year, was an impressive 877, in a school with a 94 percent African-American and 74 percent free-and-reduced lunch student population.”

Developers plan large skate park next to Watts Towers

Skate park developers plan large skate park next to Watts Towers from 89.3 KPCC on Vimeo.

Some residents question whether a proposed $350,000 skate park billed as a way to help keep kids out of gangs is the best use for a vacant lot that sits in the shadow of the historic Watts Towers. Professional skateboarders and skate park developers are working with Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn’s office to build a large skate park. It’s a project that has a big fundraising campaign behind it; the Tony Hawk Foundation has already raised $80,000 to get the project off the ground.

But some Watts residents envision an outdoor green space, not a skate park.

“It’s not best use for that site,” said Janine Watkins, who owns a house next to the vacant lot and is also part of the Watts Towers Task Force, which helps conserve the towers and the area around it. “We already have so much concrete in Watts and they want to come and put more in.”

Courtesy California Skate Parks

Professional skateboarders and skate park developers are working with Councilwoman Janice Hahn’s office to build a large skate park in a vacant lot next to the Watts Towers. But supporters of the planned skate park believe the project could go a long way toward helping turn around a community with a history of violence.

“A park like this could have saved a lot of my friends’ lives,” said Terry Kennedy, an L.A.-based skater who grew up in Long Beach. “Because having somewhere to go and kick it, that’s the most important thing coming up in the inner city. If those kids don’t have something to grab their attention, then it’s on the streets.”

California Skateparks, out of Upland, envision an “artistic skateable environment” with mosaics, around three rings that mimic the design of the Watts Towers. Developers envision a place where kids can come to see demos and even participate in art clinics. If approved, it would be the first of its kind in the area.

Mark Hammond, a 21-year-old who skates in the area, thinks this would be a healthy activity.

“Skaters stay away from crime,” Hammond said. “It gives them an alternative to gang-banging.”

The Tony Hawk Foundation, an organization started by professional skater Tony Hawk, is trying to spread that message by helping cities build skate parks like the one proposed for Watts. Since the fall, Hawk’s foundation has raised $80,000 for the project. The Watts Tower skate park was the main recipient of its annual pledge drive, and Hawk also raised money through online campaigns.

There’s a lot of star power and heft behind the project. Supporters hope to raise the rest of the money for the project through outreach efforts from sports agent Circe Wallace, who also worked with Hahn’s office to build a similar skate park in San Pedro. Wallace represents pro skateboarders such as Kennedy and is approaching corporate sponsors and private donors.

But some residents don’t want a skate park near their homes. They want a conventional park.

“A lot of people in our neighborhood don’t have space to even put up a swing set on their yard,” said Jamika Graham, who lives a few blocks from the Watts Towers with her two children. “That space would be perfect for a regular park for everyone to use.”

The area around the Watts Towers is already a popular destination among local children and skateboarders.

Douglos Cisneros has worked as a security guard at the Watts Towers for six years. He says the neighborhood around the towers has gotten safer over the past five years. His biggest security threat, he says, is keeping the kids who do hang out there out of trouble.

“When the schools are on vacation there will be 20 or 25 kids hanging around, jumping on the fences,” Cisneros said. “I have to yell at them ‘Please get off. Please don’t do that.’”

Miki Vuckovich, executive director of the Tony Hawk Foundation, believes the spot which does see a lot of foot traffic, would be a perfect location for a skate park.

“Skate parks needs to be built somewhere out in the open,” Vuckovich said.

Janine Watkins says the neighbors who oppose the project are supportive of skate parks, just not next to the Watts Towers. She is working with her neighbors to convince the developers to build the park at the Jordan Downs housing project, located near David Starr Jordan High School.

“That’s not going to happen,” Wallace said. “The reality is that lot has been sitting vacant for 20 years. … What we want is a mixed use facility – grassy green zone, community areas, an environment that makes everyone feel engaged and doesn’t alienate anyone.”

Officials plan to hold community meetings about the proposal in the coming months.

“We don’t want to force anything upon the Watts neighborhood,” Wallace said.


This story is part of a collaboration between and Intersections: The South Los Angeles Report, a hyperlocal project from the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Amid recession, questions over the cost, and purpose, of state parks

The Watts Towers cost a lot to maintain… are they worth the expense?

WATTS- The Watts Towers rise above the South Los Angeles neighborhood, a testament to the ambition of an Italian immigrant who called Watts his home for decades.  But in the realities of a recession, the nearly 90-year-old icons have seen their budget cut, a blow to the 17 fragile structures in constant need of maintenance.

By one estimate, the Towers need $5 million for a complete overhaul that would restore them to their original splendor.  But in a recession, during which thousands of Californians have lost their jobs, is the cost of maintenance for the Towers and other state parks worth the expense? For many in Los Angeles, the Towers – a designated state historical park – the answers come easy:  The Towers represent a California treasure whose presence gives Watts and South Los Angeles an identity.

For many, like artist R. Judson Powell of the Watts Tower Art Center, monuments like the Watts Towers provide “Inspiration” while identifying an entire region. “Were it not for these towers, the name Watts would no longer exist,” says Powell, “because they exist, it keeps the name alive.  It has become a flagship actually.” [see slideshow of Watts Towers]

Icons cost, however.

The California State Parks department lost $14.2 million during the state assembly’s summer efforts to produce a budget; parks officials estimate that in fiscal year  2009-10, the department will lose another $24.2 million in fees lost from mandatory state-imposed furlough days and closing parks.  The grim scenario has prompted parks officials to search for alternative funding until times are better.

“We are fairly optimistic that we will have some important partners come forward to help us fund some parks,” said Roy Stearns, a spokesperson for California State Parks, “However, we have never done this before, and so there is no yardstick to use to gauge how this will work.”

No parks have yet closed as a result of the recently passed California budget, but as many as 100 locations could eventually close for a period of time. The actual number of parks that could be shuttered remains unclear, however.  Stearns said the parks department will start making decisions about which parks may close beginning around Labor Day.

New form of funding for parks?

The recession, meanwhile, has prompted the parks department to search for alternative funding sources to keep parks open and monuments like the Watts Towers from falling into disrepair. “Right now we’re out beating the bushes to find private partnerships, cities, counties, companies, corporations and environmental groups to help us with these parks,” said Stearns. “If we can do that then we can keep more parks open.”  

These partnerships could play an important role in saving jobs.  The cut to the parks department budget could add to California’s unemployment rate, already more than 11%, because most of the $14.2 million trimmed from the budget would have gone to labor—wages, salaries and benefits. 

“We hope to minimize layoffs,” said Stearns.  “However, if we were to close 100 parks and suffer the large cuts that are projected we will likely have to make layoffs. The question of how many still uncertain. The more partnership funding that we get, the more real people we save in real jobs.”

To make up for some of the lost state funding, parks already have increased prices $2 to $5 at day-use parks, and camping fees will increase $10 – $21, depending on location.  The parks estimate the fee increases will raise $200,000 between now and the end of the year and $5 million over the next three years.  But those figures don’t come close to covering the estimated loss of 20% of the State Parks operating budget –$51.6 million–during the next two years alone. 

One concern is that the increased rates could preclude many park frequenters from utilizing the parks, which have become popular destinations because of their appeal as low-budget family vacations.  But the parks department is optimistic that the higher fees won’t completely undermine the appeal of parks that will remain open.

“We have loyal visitors who truly love our parks,” said State Parks Director Ruth Coleman in a statement last month.  “We will do our best to maximize the use of additional funds so that parks continue to be available for public enjoyment.”

 But questions remain about sources for additional funds. 

Spreading the cost of maintenance is one idea gaining popularity, and some parks already are dually funded by the state, federal government and/or private associations.

A high-maintenance monument

For example, the Watts Towers is owned by the state but funded and managed though a third party with funding from the City of Los Angeles, the state, federal grants and private donations.  From 1991-2009, the Watts Towers received more than $1.3 million from the city; $3.3 million from state and federal  grants; and $155,000 from private donors, according to the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs.  While Watts Towers spokespersons declined to comment on the cost of maintenance, one worker said that the project gets a major overhaul once every seven years or so.  The Towers are currently closed to repair the ground work supporting the structures and to add a new fence around the structure. 

In July, the Los Angeles Times reported one “quick and dirty” estimate of $5 million to fully repair the Towers, built between 1921 through 1955 by Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant.  The cost of repairs, especially during cloudy financial times, raises questions about how much the city and state should spend on parks and monuments when teachers, hospital  workers and other workers serving the public interests are laid off.

But the cost of maintaining parks and monuments is, according to some Californians, money well spent, even in tumultuous economic times.

“We have special places,” beamed Stearns. “They tell us who we are and where we came from, priceless places which are on equal to anything we have in the country and those are places worth saving for your kids and mine.”

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo and harmony between Latinos and African Americans