"It feels like we're being pushed out."
Los Angeles Unified School District officials have presented tentative plans to have the student body at the public Orville Wright Middle School STEAM Magnet in Westchester relinquish their current campus to a charter school they share it with. Some parents see the district’s decision as a racist plot to move a primarily Black and brown school out of a wealthier, whiter neighborhood.
The proposal has three components: First, relocating Wright students to a campus just over two miles away used by Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets (WESM) and Katherine Johnson STEM Academy. Second, WISH Charter Elementary School would take over the Wright campus. Lastly, Pio Pico Middle School, also public, would close entirely.
Wright, WESM, and Pio Pico primarily serve poor students of color. All four schools are also located in Westchester, a majority-white neighborhood that has a dark history of racial covenants and redlining. Westchester is one of several neighborhoods in Los Angeles that outright banned Black homeowners in housing covenants used by subdivisions in the early 20th century.
Staff at Wright learned about the plan on January 18, when they logged onto a Zoom meeting with LAUSD officials. Parents found out after in separate meetings.
“My out-loud reaction was ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me,’” said Dena Vatcher, president of the Wright PTO and a parent of two children who attend the school. “And then I was angry.”
Vatcher has been a fierce advocate for the school, leading meetings and encouraging other parents to join her mission to protect Wright. For her, the move is not about allocating resources — she sees it as racially motivated.
“In my opinion, that’s what it pretty much comes down to — people see a school full of Black and brown kids,” Vatcher said. “I’m wishfully thinking it comes down to subconscious racism.”
Ashton, an eighth grade magnet student at Wright, heard about the plans from a teacher who told his class. “It feels like we’re being pushed out,” he told Knock LA.
District administrators say the move is a way to combine several different student bodies and provide them with more resources. It’s supported by Nick Melvoin, an LAUSD board member who represents Westchester. Melvoin is a former LAUSD teacher who ran on school choice, receiving millions of dollars from charter school advocates such as Walmart’s Walton family. The election was the most expensive of its kind in US history. Since his election in 2017, charter school supporters have held a majority on the Board of Education. Melvoin did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
LAUSD offered the decline in enrollment at Wright and other Westchester schools as the reason for the move. Wright has lost some 200 students since 2016. At WESM, the decline has been much steeper — around 1,000 students. The drop in enrollment is not unique to the two schools; LAUSD has seen a gradual decline in enrollment since the early 2000s.
Many neighborhood residents do not send their children to local public schools. 2020-21 school year data reviewed by Knock LA shows that Wright has just 73 students of around 500 enrolled coming from the surrounding neighborhood. Most students at Wright and WESM commute from neighborhoods in South Los Angeles, and would have no way of getting to the new campus at Westchester.
“There’s a community of kids who live in the apartments off of La Tijera and Centinela who walk to Wright. Those kids strictly have to walk because they don’t qualify for the magnet bus,” a parent said. “Those kids, they walk — their parents are working. I can drop them off on my way to work because I’m an educator.”
Although WESM is a six-minute drive from Wright, the schools are nearly an hour away from each other in walking distance, a critical distance for students who already walk to Wright. The students who live at La Tijera and Centinela would have to walk for five miles, nearly an hour and a half, to reach WESM, and nearly twice the distance they walk to Wright.
The schools and their students are held in a negative regard by some of their white neighbors. The principal at Wright received an anonymous letter recently that was posted to an Instagram account advocating for the charter. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” the scrawled writing reads. “From your neighbors — whose patience and overall betterness won out.” It’s one of many similar interactions parents have had with Westchester residents over the years.
Before enrolling her children at Wright, Vatcher had heard rumors about it, like other parents had. “Whenever I asked about Wright, people were like, ‘oh no, don’t worry about that one, that place is a mess,” Vatcher said. Vatcher toured the school, enrolled her son, and fell in love. “I never really looked back. Once I started getting involved there, I never second-guessed myself.”
John Falvey, a Wright parent, has also witnessed the racism the school faces. “There are definitely people who live in the neighborhood who would like to see Wright move out and WISH move in, because WISH is a different clientele, if you will.”
Wright has also recently undergone extensive renovations allegedly to the tune of $4 million, including new ramps and wider doorways for disabled students. The renovations were finished in 2021. According to parents, it’s a far better campus than WESM, which still uses bungalows, temporary trailers that can have high concentrations of asbestos.
“The WESM campus is incredibly expansive, has approximately 14 staircases, and its front office is up two flights of stairs with no elevator,” said WISH executive director Shawna Draxton. “It is incredibly difficult to navigate for folks who use wheelchairs or orthopedic devices.”
WISH also serves some disabled students, but Wright parents don’t want to give up the new campus they waited patiently for.
“Now that [Wright is] cleaned up, let’s take these kids and move them over here and give this campus to these other children,” said one Wright parent who wanted to remain anonymous. “Now, they’re going to a campus that needs to be cleaned up again. That’s what happens with underprivileged children. They get the bottom of the barrel.”
The move is currently in limbo with no plans to move forward at the next Board of Education meeting. Knock LA is told there will be no changes for at least the next school year. For now, parents and students wait uneasily.