This South L.A. Charter School Closed a Month Early — And Won't Reopen

A padlock holds a gate closed at L.A. Academy Middle School in the South Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The charter school co-located on the campus, Summit Preparatory Charter School, ceased instruction on May 3, 2019 — a month earlier than initially planned. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

A charter school in South Los Angeles, whose future was already in doubt, has taken the unusual step of ending its school year a month early before ceasing operations for good.

Friday was the last day of classes at Summit Preparatory Charter School, which originally planned to end its school year on June 7. The charter enrolled around 250 students in grades 4 through 8 and operated in a wing of an L.A. Unified middle school in the South Park neighborhood.

Summit Prep parents have known about the closure for about a month.

On April 2, the L.A. Unified School Board voted against renewing Summit Prep's charter. Later the same day, with the school already running a deficit, Summit Prep's leaders decided to begin the process of shutting it down.

Summit Prep students have technically already clocked a complete school year; they've met a state minimum for instructional time, the school's founder and executive director Arianna Haut said.

"We will continue to work with our families to ensure our students are enrolled in schools for next year," Haut said in a statement. "With heavy hearts, we say goodbye to a community that welcomed us."

While Summit Prep's closure isn't exactly sudden, for a charter school to close this early is rare.

In the past two decades, state data shows that 135 charter schools have closed in L.A. County. But the vast majority closed in June or July — likely after the school year ended. Before Summit Prep, just 13 charter schools closed between October and May.

Every three to five years, charter schools must apply for renewals from the "authorizer" that regulates and oversees them — often, the local school district in which they operate. LAUSD officials asked school board members to deny Summit Prep's renewal application, citing concerns with the school's financial and academic track record.

Last school year, nearly one-quarter of Summit Prep's students were at-risk or long-term English learners. District officials said only 1.1 percent of the school's English learners had been "reclassified" as English-proficient — far lower than other area schools.

"That number matters," said Ed Lin, president of Summit Prep's governing board, in an emotional interview. "We would've liked to have a chance to address it." (The school had developed an action plan to improve its English learner metrics.)

Summit Preparatory Charter School enrolled around 250 students in grades 4 through 8 and operated in a wing of an L.A. Unified middle school in the South Park neighborhood. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Summit Prep leaders could have appealed the LAUSD board's April 2 vote on its petition to renew its charter for five years, and sought a new charter from either county or state officials.

But Lin said the LAUSD board's non-renewal vote jeopardized a short-term loan the school was counting on in order to continue operations. Summit Prep had a projected net income of $275,000 this year — but that still left the school with negative net assets of around $310,000.

"There's no way we could've gone all the way to June," Lin said. "We would be so far into the red that it would be irresponsible. This is the best plan we could come up with."

"Is it what we wanted? No," Lin added. "We wanted to finish out the school year."

Donations to a GoFundMe page for Summit Prep, which Haut posted shortly after the decision to close last month, netted just under $15,000 for the school, Haut said. Those donations — coupled with an early closing date and selling off school equipment — should allow Summit Prep to settle all of its existing expenses, including staff payroll before it closes its doors.

Summit Prep's shutdown has raised eyebrows among critics of charter schools. Teachers unions in particular see charters as existential threats to the finances of traditional, district-run public schools.

Prominent charter critic Diane Ravitch posted a write-up about the early closure on her widely-read blog.

The post noted that Summit Prep claimed space on an LAUSD campus under the state law known as Prop. 39, which entitles charter schools to operate on district-run campuses at minimal cost. These "co-locations" sometimes force the LAUSD host school to give up computer labs, music rooms and parent centers for the charter school's use.

"Nothing, I mean nothing," the blog post quoted an LAUSD teacher as saying, "is worse to me than lying to immigrant parents who have sacrificed so much to get to this country, to give their children a better life."

An exasperated-sounding Lin, who was a founding board member of Summit Prep, said that criticism of charter schools has gotten out of hand — particularly after January's L.A. teachers strike.

"I passionately believe in public education," Lin said. "The treatment we've received from LAUSD, and from the public ... it's ridiculous. We're members of this community trying to do a good thing."