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LA County Office of Education votes to yank the charter of much-needed new boarding school for county’s most vulnerable kids

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

Last year the Los Angeles County Office of Education Board approved the charter for a brand new school to be called  Future is Now Prep — known as FIN Prep, for short.

Then, late in the afternoon of Tuesday, August 17, 2021, to the dismay of youth advocates and the supporters of the soon-to-open new school, the LACOE Board voted to terminate its  charter.

Here’s what happened.

FIN Prep, which was due to open in September with an inaugural group of students, will be a free public residential boarding school designed to serve some of LA County’s most vulnerable 6th through 12th graders.   Specifically, the project that has been in the works for two years, will work with kids who are experiencing homelessness, or are in the county’s foster care system, or have been affected by the youth justice system — or, in many cases, all of the above.

The creation of Future is Now Prep has been led by Steve Barr, who is best known for founding Green Dot Public Schools.

The new school has particularly been recruiting from LA County’s unhoused population.

Conventional public schools “are not equipped to reach the county’s kids who are struggling with homelessness,” said Barr regarding his new project. “We’ll never know how many slip through the cracks of the education system.”

Vista of planned site for FIN Academy

Green Dot, for those unfamiliar, is one of California’s most successful charter school networks, with schools placed in Watts, Inglewood, Compton, Boyle Heights, and other similar neighborhoods where kids need and deserve a good education but had not always gotten it.

Yet, Green Dot succeeded in offering a different vision.   In 2009, before Barr left his leadership role to go on to other projects, two of Green Dot’s academies were on U.S. News and World Report’s list of the 100 best public schools in the nation, an accomplishment that kept expanding.  This year, U.S. News has ranked nine of the Green Dot Public Schools in the magazine’s top 100 rankings.

Also, under Barr, Green Dot took over and turned around Locke High School, which was at at the time one of the LA Unified School District’s most troubled institutions.  Green Dot recreated it into small, safe, personalized learning academies.

After that, Barr went on to open charter schools elsewhere in the nation.

In other words,  Steve Barr is quite familiar with the difficulties of getting a new charter school up and running, and has a lengthy record of successfully meeting the challenge.

He also has his own background as a foster kid, along with other family trauma, which is a big piece of how and why he began founding schools, including this latest venture of FIN Prep, the boarding school that has been aiming to open in September on an picturesque 81-acre property in the Angeles National Forest, which presently houses a summer camp.

Potential outdoor classroom for FIN Academy

Over recent months, FIN Prep has been going through the process of persuading potential students and their families to sign up.

Despite Barr’s past experience with charter start-ups, recruiting for this new project has been a slower than usual process.  Nevertheless, according to Barr,  he is pleased with FIN Prep’s progress, and confident that the school would be ready to open its doors on time, although likely not with  the full number of students he hopes to have a year from now.

As the school continued to recruit this summer, there have been some well known youth advocates cheering for Barr and FIN to succeed.

For instance,  the new endeavor has gathered the support of such organizations as the Boys & Girls Club of Antelope Valley, Centinela Youth Services, the Anti Recidivism Coalition (ARC), Father Greg Boyle of  Homeboy Industries, and others who are deeply familiar with the youth that the new school hopes to serve.

A couple weeks ago, however, a problem arose that now threatens to derail FIN Prep altogether.

The threat to pull the plug

The LA County Office of Education, which is the entity that has granted the project its charter,  sent Barr and FIN a notice indicating that LACOE staff members had asked the LACOE Board to vote to terminate the FIN Academy’s charter at the board’s August 17th meeting.  This meant that, if the LACOE group has its way, the board would vaporize FIN’s charter.

(You can read the LACOE group’s lengthy document asking for the termination of the charter here.)

The first of LACOE’s criticisms of FIN Prep is the fact that their student roster is not yet close to full, a fact that Barr freely admits.

Another  reason cited to yank the charter is that, according to to LACOE’s numbers, FIN will be running at a deficit when and if it opens in September.

We’ll get to the deficit in a minute, but first, the enrollment issue.

According to Barr, opening a brand new charter school with low enrollment is standard practice.

“Charter schools,” he told WitnessLA, especially new ones, often begin the year with a shortfall of students, “and then spend the first year enrolling more.”

FIN Prep’s enrollment has also been slowed down, he said,  by with the fact that the school is is targeting students “who are most likely to fall through the cracks,” and who take time to reach.  Then once contacted, the kids and families are often fearful of taking a chance on something new, as many have been let down badly by county agencies and organizations in the past.

There is also the matter of the still-ongoing COVID problem, which has caused students all over the nation to vanish from school counts. In LA, for example, as of April 2021, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s  enrollment fell by 20,841 (4.76%).  And those numbers are four months old, before the Delta variant spread so aggressively.

Yet, all that said, slowly but surely FIN Prep appeared to be succeeding in recruiting its first class of students from the population of LA County kids who could greatly benefit from the kind of caring attention that is FIN Prep plans to offer.   According to Barr,  the school would begin with about 50 kids, and then build from there.

As for the deficit, Barr told the LACOE board that, in addition to the fact that he and his board are continuing to raise money, with more funding expected later this year, from various sources, including the government, the fact that the school is beginning with fewer students means it will also begin with fewer teachers, which causes the deficit to basically vanish, at least for now.  In the past, Steve Barr has been an expert at fundraising, but raising cash in 2020 and 2021 has presented unique challenges.  Still he is confident.

(Barr lays out his explanation at greater length in FIN Prep’s official response to LACOE,  which you can assess for yourself here.)

So, is Barr right?

In attempting to answer that question, it’s important to note that California State law has a detailed process for revoking a school’s charter (which you can find here).  The process occurs in multiple steps and allows for several chances for a charter school to “cure” any problems a school board might flag, before the dire step of terminating a charter.

According to Barr, and others,  LACOE has not followed that process. Yet, according to the representative from the LACOE staff,  the move to void the charter is perfectly legal.

A quick reading of the LACOE document calling for a vote to revoke FIN Prep’s charter, and a supportive letter from former LACOE board members, suggest that Barr may be correct.  Furthermore, LACOE’s case is not helped by the fact that many of its complaints come off as either petty and very correctable, or simply incorrect.

For instance, among the additional complaints the LACOE staff list, is the allegation that the company’s CEO, Barr, was on  FIN Prep’s board, which LACOE says is a conflict of interest.

Barr is no longer on the board, yet the objection was still listed on Tuesday’s document.

Among the other reasons listed to end FIN’s charter, there is this:

“…the petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the proposed educational program”

Really?  Why not?

That question was not adequately answered.  The bottom line seemed mostly to be that LACOE doesn’t believe Barr and FIN Prep  can succeed.

Unreliable narrators?

In assessing the decision before the board on Tuesday afternoon, it was difficult not to note that, on January 13, 2021, LACOE and Los Angeles County Probation entered into a settlement with the California Department of Justice, “to improve the conditions and education services in the county’s juvenile halls.”

The settlement cames after the Cal DOJ spent months investigating the way kids were being treated and educated in the county’s two juvenile halls and found, “serious deficiencies regarding the treatment and conditions of confinement of youth in juvenile detention in the county,” which included “concerns regarding the inadequate provision of education services to justice-involved youth.”

Last Thursday, August 12, representatives from LACOE and LA County Probation gave a presentation to the county’s Probation Oversight Commission (POC) about the progress that had been made in hitting a series of required marks, during the seven months since signing the agreement with the DOJ.

The presentation, however, was not persuasive.  It both lacked details, and made general claims that ran counter to what those who had recently visited the two county youth facilities in question, or had friends or youth clients inside, were observing on the ground. Furthermore, those doing the presenting brought no supporting documents, and declined, when asked by the POC commissioners, to agree to produce any such documents or charts or reports in the future that laid out what corrections had or would be be made to satisfy the DOJ’s demands having to do with the actual wellbeing of the kids in the county’s care.

Of course, the recent and very unsatisfying reports by LACOE and LA County Probation regarding the DOJ settlement, have nothing really to do with the move by LACOE to try to kill FIN Prep, a school that — if it is still somehow allowed to birth itself — hopes to strengthen, nurture, and educate, many of the same kids that the county is serving poorly according to January’s disturbing DOJ complaint, in which LACOE is one of the primary defendants.

And, yes, there are many dedicated and gifted people who work for LACOE.

Yet, in these two critical instances, the juxtaposition is…. jarring.

Fans and defenders

As mentioned above, FIN Prep has a list of fans among those who work with the kids whom the new school hopes to serve.

Among them is Jessica Ellis, Executive Director, of Centinela Youth Services, which has partnered since 2013 with the Los Angeles Police Department on well-respected restorative justice diversion program that keeps kids who qualify out of the juvenile system, if they break the law.

On August 12, Ellis sent a letter to LACOE explaining why FIN Prep was important, and very sorely needed.

(You can read the letter here.)

“One of the biggest challenges for the youth and families we serve are schools that are unable to meet the needs of those who have experienced tremendous trauma and long-term toxic stress,” Ellis wrote.

“Time and again,” she said, “we see local schools respond to our kids’ attempts to cope and survive, with harsh and punitive measures. Often our vulnerable young people are sidelined into continuation schools that give up on their intelligence and potential, with education reduced to worksheet packets and metal detectors.”

In contrast, said Ellis, the proposed Future Is Now Preparatory “dares to present an education model where children with the highest needs are valued as individuals worthy of a ‘do whatever it takes’ approach to meet their unique needs to build their resiliency and reconnect them with their true potential.”

According to Ellis, youth such as the kids served by her organization, “desperately need this new vision for their education.”

In helps, Ellis wrote,  that those behind FIN Academy, “have proven track record of educational innovation and success. This charter school vision is well designed, is in alignment with the need of the target population and fills a major gap in the educational landscape.”

In addition to Ellis, three former members of LACOE’s board  signed their own letter asking the board to vote no on the idea of terminating the charter for FIN Prep.

“The staff recommendation to abruptly rescind FIN Prep’s charter before the school is even able to open its doors — is without precedent,” the threesome — which included recently retired board members Alex Johnson, Ellen Rosenberg, and Doug Boyd –stated in the letter.

The attempt was, according to the former board members, “a clear violation of charter law and, most importantly, an act of harm toward the homeless students, foster youth and young people involved in the juvenile justice system who right now lack the educational opportunities that FIN Prep promises to provide.”

Nevertheless,  at approximately 5:36 p.m. on Tuesday, August 17, the majority of LACOE board voted to terminate FIN Prep’s charter.

Two board members voted NO on the proposal to shank the charter.  Dr. Yvonne Chen, a board member who is also an award winning educator, proposed waiting until September 30, 2021, to see if the school could succeed in enrolling its proposed 50 kids, while also remaining fiscally solvent, and hitting its other promised marks in order to open its doors.

Members of the LACOE staff in favor of shutting down Barr and company said, no, they could not wait.

“Our main concern is always the students,” said one of the LACOE officials.

Then the question was called and five board members voted in favor of terminating the charter for Future is Now Preparatory, with two voting against the termination.

And that was that.

So where does Barr and FIN Prep go from here?

The answer to that question is not yet clear.

More as we know it.  So….stay tuned.

This story was updated at 6:16 p.m. on 8/17/2021.