Author's note: This is the second in a series on our educational system; last week’s column was the first.
There certainly hasn’t been a lack of ideas to reverse the malaise that infests most of our K-12 school systems. In large municipal school systems, charter schools – which many see as a partial solution – have been fought tooth and nail by the education establishment. I’ve spent a lot of time on L.A. Unified school campuses, but hadn’t yet visited a charter school – which is why I recently toured the Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy.
Bright Star has a board of directors, but the principal player is their CEO, Ari Engelberg – a pretty fascinating guy. When he was at UCLA, trying to simultaneously earn both MBA and law degrees, he co-founded Stamps.com. After starting another Internet venture, he went into the education business, eventually accepting the position of CEO of Bright Star in 2007. Yet, believe me, he has to use every bit of his business experience, and every morsel of knowledge gained from his two advanced degrees (as well as his Bachelor degrees in Political Science and Psychology from U.C. Berkeley), to run Bright Star’s two campuses.
I visited the 7th-12th grade campus. (The other campus – for 5th and 6th graders – feeds into this one, but they also accept students from other sources.) The first thing you notice about the place is that it’s quiet and clean. The 8-acre property, which was “leased” to Bright Star after being abandoned by LAUSD, borders the Los Angeles Airport, near an area where the local neighborhood had been bought out because of the high cost of retrofitting to prevent aircraft noise. With the school population decimated, the campus became available and Bright Star stepped in to put it to use. It has standard post-World War II bungalows that were freshly painted by LAUSD before delivery to Bright Star – who has maintained them meticulously since.
The essential feature of the campus is the 510 uniformed students, 90% of which are Latinos and the remainder mostly African-American. This is not a rich crowd. 90% are bused to the campus from other areas, and 95% qualify for the hot lunch program funded by the federal government (which means that the annual family income must be around $28,000).