Conservationists Oppose San Fernando Valley Charter School Plan

Plans to bring a charter school in the San Fernando Valley closer to the underfunded Latino community it serves have faced opposition from conservatives, who say the North Hills neighborhood already has enough schools and raised concerns about a 1910s house on the proposed land.

The one-story house at 15526 Plummer St. was one of the first built in Mission Acres, as North Hills was originally called. Built in 1914, the house belonged to John L. Plummer, a pioneer farmer who owned about 90 acres, according to a report by the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission.

SurveyLA, a citywide historic resources review, designated the property as “very rare” and a “surviving example of an intact 1910s residence.”

Debora Masterson, 72, who founded the 60-member North Hills Preservation Consortium, said the Plummer House and adjacent plot should be used for a museum of ancient California history and a community park instead of a ‘school. She helped lead the charge to designate the house as a historic-cultural landmark, raising more than $5,000 to hire a consultant to write the nomination.

Members of the preservation group started a petition and staged a protest in July, arguing that there are already more than a dozen schools in the neighborhood.

The charter school, Valor Academy Elementary, has moved to temporary locations in Granada Hills, Panorama City and Arleta over the past seven years and aims to find a permanent home. General manager Hrag Hamalian of Bright Star Schools, which operates nine charter schools in the Valley, Koreatown and West Adams, said the new location will shorten commutes for Valor Academy parents, many of whom have children on multiple campuses. by BrightStar.

The three Bright Star schools in North Hills serve about 1,430 students, 93% of whom are Latino and 94% are from low-income families, according to the charter group.

Lesly Agustin, center, with her son Ivan Lopez and daughter Lesly Lopez at Valor Academy Elementary School in Arleta. She said the school’s new location would cut her driving time by nearly half.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s not a new school,” Hamalian said. “We have almost 400 children registered, and the only reason we cannot exceed the number of registrations is because of the constraints of the establishment. This property will allow us to expand the school.

Hamalian said he supports the historic and cultural designation of the house and that an architect and consultant had been hired to ensure the rest of the school’s buildings would incorporate the “continuing motif and aesthetic of the home”.

“Honestly, we’ve been pretty confused, confused and hurt [by the opposition because] since the beginning of this project, we have publicly supported the historic designation and preservation of the house,” he said.

The school is awaiting city approval of its plans, expected within the next three to six months, before beginning construction.

In its preliminary plans, the school listed the future use of the house as administrative, but Hamalian said he remains open to other ideas for the house and to working with the North Hills Preservation Consortium.

“It’s hard not to draw a linear correlation between us wanting to build a school for 500 Latinx kids who live in this community and this historic designation being used to fight our school project,” he said.

Hamid Nouraf, the owner of Plummer House since 2010, said it was a “personal decision” to sell to Bright Star Schools and it “provides a much needed educational resource to the surrounding community”. Masterson contacted him several times over the past year, he said, but he informed her that he was already in escrow with the school.

“As I understand it, Bright Star plans to integrate the existing [single-family rental] Debora wanted to be saved as an office component of the new school,” said Frank Evanisko, Nouraf’s real estate broker. “It would seem to me that should be music to his ears.”

But Masterson said the preservation group finds it “unacceptable” that the house is being used as a school office instead of a museum.

“You walk through the door and it’s like the Plummer family still lives there,” she said. “They had wells and chicken coops in the yard and they farmed dry. It gives people a sense of belonging and a sense of belonging which I think is really important.

Masterson, who grew up in North Hills and whose late husband grew up about a quarter mile away, said she discovered the Plummer home on the city’s zoning website last year.

“It was like a call,” she said. “It was like a thunderbolt or something hit me, and I was like, ‘I have to do something about this.’ For my late husband, for my family, for all the people I knew in this region.

The Plummer family owned the home from 1912-19 before selling it, said Ken Bernstein, director of the city’s Office of Historic Resources. They resided in their main house a few blocks west, but it was demolished in the 1980s.

If the building is approved as a historic-cultural landmark, it cannot be demolished without permission from the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission.

“The fact that this house dates from 1914, before this community was even part of Los Angeles, is a very rare and intact example of that earliest period,” Bernstein said.

The house’s nomination was approved by the Office of Historic Resources and the Cultural Heritage Commission, leaving it to the city council to decide on final approval. While the usual deadline for city council to act is Nov. 16, the deadline is flexible due to the city’s declaration of a COVID-19 emergency. Masterson said they were told “chances are very good” that the board would approve it.

Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez supported the historic designation of the house but did not take a position on what should be built on the property.

As the preservation group lobbied for the lot to include a community park, Rodriguez pointed to the need for open space in park-poor neighborhoods such as North Hills.

“I think when you look at areas with a high concentration of multi-family homes, we’ve seen through the pandemic that there’s a great need for those kinds of facilities,” she said. “It’s good for mental health and respite when you have access to open space.”

A woman stands at a desk in a classroom full of children

Parent Yesenia Ostorga, in a classroom at Valor Academy Elementary, said she takes a taxi every day from Van Nuys to drop her children off at school.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Rodriguez’s request for $1.2 million from the state to acquire land for an open space in North Hills was not included in this year’s budget, according to his office.

“We are in the situation where we rely on this historical and cultural monument to preserve the history and make sure that whoever is there respects that and that is an important part of any project that ends up being developed there,” Rodriguez said.

Residents on both sides of the issue have spoken out about what the school site will mean to them.

Lesly Agustin, 31, has lived in the area for eight years and drives about 15 minutes between Valor Academy Elementary School and Valor Academy High School to pick up her four children. She said she was “very happy” with the school’s new location, as it will cut her driving time almost in half.

Yesenia Ostorga, 33, takes a taxi every day from Van Nuys to drop off her two children at Valor Academy Elementary. The new location will allow her to walk there in three minutes once she moves to North Hills, she said.

Ervin Arevalo, a member of the North Hills Preservation Consortium and a fourth-grade teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District for 24 years, said using the house as a museum could be rewarding for his students.

“It would be nice for students to come and see how these houses work,” he said. “There are remnants of what it was before. Just having artifacts some time ago would be a great experience for kids.

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