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L.A.'s first charter school on a university campus

March 27, 2009 |  1:11 pm

The first charter school to operate on a local university campus had its official opening Thursday at Cal State Los Angeles with a ceremony that drew dignitaries from across the state.

But the day’s star may have been Cesar Gomez, a 16-year-old junior at the $13-million Stern Math and Science School.

Cesar_gomez Gomez, who plans to be the first in his family to attend college, recounted how, as a preschooler, he’d dressed up a doll as a pediatrician when asked to demonstrate what he wanted to become. His mother shared in her son’s aspirations, but, he said, “as I was going to middle school, her dream was pushed further and further back.”

Speaking before 200 guests and more than 400 students on the lawn outside the campus entrance, Gomez noted the poor historical performance of schools in East Los Angeles, which have high dropout rates and low test scores.

At the charter school, in contrast, “on the first day, I knew they meant business.”

He especially praised his instructors: “If you ask me what is the best thing about this school, it’s the teachers. They never give up.”

Charters are independently managed public schools.

The Stern school first operated in rented space belonging to another charter school. Then it moved to portable classrooms atop a parking lot at the college. This fall, the school moved into its new, 34,000-square-foot facility, which was completed in January.

The sleek, modern building is compactly designed -- the multipurpose room doubles as a half-gym; students eat lunch on tables set up on the roof.

Students have access to the university library and college classes and also benefit from the college’s student teachers and student counselors.

The school is one of 11 opened by Alliance College-Ready Public Schools and is its first ground-up project, said alliance Chief Executive Judy Burton.

The major donors included philanthropists Marc and Eva Stern, for whom the school is named. The alliance also obtained low-interest construction loans, some of them subsidized through government support.

Alliance schools typically score much better on state tests than surrounding neighborhood schools. Their model includes smaller classes in small schools with intensive academics, a focus on preparing all students for college, and fewer extracurricular activities.

At Stern, Gomez said, “I am not a number. This school knows me, my parents, my aspirations.”

-- Howard Blume

Photo: Cesar Gomez holds up model of double helix as prop to demonstrate students' knowledge of science. Credit: Alliance College-Ready Public Schools.