A plan required by the Los Angeles Unified School District to split Banning High School in Wilmington into two separate schools come fall is moving forward over the strident objections of parents, teachers, activists and elected officials.
The dispute has created a dynamic in which Wilmington locals are feeling like they've lost control of their school to downtown LAUSD administrators with no familiarity of the area.
Their frustration was palpable Thursday evening when Travis Collier, LAUSD's director of instruction for this area, gave an explanatory presentation in an auditorium filled with parents and activists who treated him with open hostility.
Angelica Perez, a parent volunteer at the school, threatened to file a lawsuit.
"I am not going to allow for LAUSD to come into my Wilmington community and make changes," she said, prompting boisterous cheers. "Do you feel that this is segregating our students? Can you please try to answer that question?"
The plan stems from LAUSD's Public School Choice initiative, in which low-performing schools are ordered to submit proposals on how to reconfigure their campuses to improve academic performance. The winning proposals are selected by LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy himself.
Across LAUSD, some 100 schools have been selected for the program since its 2009 inception. Among them are high schools in the South Bay and Harbor Area: San Pedro High, Gardena High and Carson High.
Carson High wrestled with this issue last year, when a plan to subdivide it into three separate schools drew similar howls of protest. The plan began in earnest this fall.
Come fall, the Banning campus at 1527 Lakme Ave. in Wilmington will contain two schools - the traditional high school and the new school, called Banning Academy of Creative & Innovative Sciences. Each will be overseen by a separate principal, and each will include its own staff of academic counselors.
The new school itself will be split into two academies - one for engineering and the other for Microsoft/Adobe computer applications.
This spring, students currently in grades eight, nine and maybe 10 will be asked to sign up for one of two schools - the new or the old. (LAUSD officials aren't yet sure whether the new school will include 11th grade the first year.)
For his part, Collier tried to impress upon the audience that the split will be good for students because it will shrink class sizes.
"We are trying to make sure we move away from a big comprehensive high school to a smaller setting," Collier said. "You're not losing anything."
The split-school proposal was one of two competing plans submitted to LAUSD by separate factions of educators at Banning. The other option kept Banning High intact, though it called for other reforms.
Created by Banning Principal Rudy Mendoza, assistant principals and other Banning teachers, the single-school plan was hands down the more popular option among locals.
It was favored by the vast majority of parents and 70 percent of the school's teachers. In addition, letters of support for keeping Banning High as a single school were sent to Deasy from U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn, Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino and the Wilmington Neighborhood Council.
Nonetheless, Deasy favored the unpopular plan to create the splinter school. Created by five teachers at the school, the split-school plan was better developed in the eyes of Deasy and his cabinet.
By comparison, they found the other plan to lack focus, although they gave it credit for being "very honest about the current realities and challenges the school faces," according to a document distributed by the district. The memo also dinged the single-school plan for not better addressing how to motivate teachers and improve low morale.
On Thursday night, Collier faced an auditorium filled with 200 or so people who were clearly distrustful.
"We have an East-West divide," said Mary Gant, a longtime community activist, referring to a deadly gang rivalry dating back decades. "This is something our community has struggled with for a long time. We do not need a divided school."
In response, Collier pointed out that the schools will share athletic teams and a campus.
"There's no division, like with a fence," he said. "There still will be a lot of unity."
Celeste Garcia, a student at the school, expressed a little sympathy for Collier, even while calling the split-school plan "dumb," as Banning High is already divided into several small learning communities.
"I kind of feel bad for you - you're here taking the heat when it really should be the other guy," she said, referring to Deasy.
Collier defended his boss.
"He is going to do whatever he believes is good for students and we feel that small schools will serve students better," he said.
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