This is a story about a tug of war over property rights versus community desires, a battle that unfolds in every corner of Los Angeles. It’s about one group trying to save a historic San Fernando Valley home built in 1914 by influential farmer John L. Plummer, and a competing plan by Bright Star Schools to build a public charter grade school next to Plummer house, using the historic bungalow for its offices.
Opponents of the school, made up of nearby residents and some local teachers, want a park on the undeveloped land adjacent to 108-year-old Plummer house, and want to see the intact bungalow turned into a museum tucked among the shade trees on Plummer Street in a middle-class and working-class community.
North Hills neighbors have lobbied city officials to designate the still-intact historic Plummer bungalow as a historical monument, a proposal that is expected to come before the Los Angeles City Council in early 2023 and has a good chance of approval.
All plans fall on Bright Star Schools, a free public charter school organization with nine schools serving 3,500 diverse, largely working-class students at Valor Elementary School in Arleta, Valor Middle School in North Hills, Valor High School in North Hills, and six schools in West Adams and Koreatown.
Bright Star Schools has applied for a conditional use permit from the city to build the school, the first step to moving its Valor Elementary School from its temporary space in Arleta to North Hills. Currently, the transitional kindergarten through 4th grade school is on private church grounds in Arleta and has limited access for school activities on weekends.
If the city gives the Plummer house a historic designation, that will not stop the school project — which has been planned by Bright Star Schools to keep the historic Plummer house intact.
The proposed school would serve an estimated 470 pupils, 94 percent of whom are from low-income families.
“We can’t take the cream of the crop students off the top,” explains Hrag Hamalian, executive director of Bright Star Schools. “Our families apply like they would apply to any other school … just a one-page form that asks for name, address, age, basically. We have no jurisdiction (over) who comes to our schools and who doesn’t, and even when we have more applicants than seats we do a public random lottery.”
Bright Star Schools’ cluster of schools in the Valley was created because parents in the Northeast San Fernando Valley complained about the education their children were getting in traditional schools. Bright Star started with Valor Academy Middle School in North Hills and built its momentum over time, fueled by community criticism of schools in working-class areas.
North Hills neighbors cite a slew of reasons to oppose the school, including traffic and their fear that the school will attract cream-of-the-crop students from nearby LAUSD schools that are seeing falling enrollment.
Bright Star School officials say they won’t object if the city grants a historical monument designation to the Plummer house, which brings certain restrictions. Their plan is to build one-story and two-story school buildings on land adjacent to the historic house, without taxpayer dollars, according to Hamalian.
Hamalian said that as a charter school organization, Bright Star did not have access to public school facilities and must fund and finance the construction of its proposed elementary school.
Construction will be financed “out of a combination of our organization’s fund balance, philanthropy and private financing,” Hamalian said in a recent interview. “Valor is an independent charter operation and has never been an LAUSD school. We receive per pupil revenue from the state and federal government, similar to all other public schools.”
About 370 students attend Valor Elementary School, founded in 2016, which has moved twice since then. Its leaders see a new permanent home rooted in North Hills as paramount for parents who have close proximity to the other Valor schools, where siblings attend.
Two parcels of land next to the Plummer house, empty for more than a decade, will be the site of the school buildings, Hamalian said.
“We hired award-winning architects to ensure not only is the house preserved, but we actually extend that motif across the entire school building,” Hamalian added. “I have been from the very beginning of this project always open to hearing in what ways can we utilize the home in order for it to be a community service.”
Hamalian balks at the fear expressed by opponents that the proposed project will siphon off students from nearby schools.
“It’s not a new school,” he said. “We are here, we are operating, we have kids. We are not drawing new kids from anywhere. All we are doing is building them a beautiful, safe, secure, long-term facility. So that argument to me doesn’t make a ton of sense.”
Some opponents have mistakenly argued that Bright Star is using taxpayer money to build a school in an already financially strapped school district, which is not the case. Their key argument is that the larger area has 12 elementary schools within a 5.5-mile radius of the proposed school, and LAUSD has seen a decline in enrollment.
“Yes, there are 12 schools that exist, and so do we,” said Hamalian, “and there’s a need for it, and there are parents here who want that school and kids who deserve to go to a school close to their home.”
Yesenia Ostoga has two children who attend Valor Elementary School, the younger one of whom has special needs who she says has blossomed since attending the school this fall.
Ostoga takes her children back and forth to school in a taxi from her Van Nuys home twice a day, except on days that she volunteers.
Having the proposed school project in North Hills will make it easier on the family.
“I can literally walk,” Ostoga said.
Severiana Pablo, whose twin grandchildren attend Valor Elementary, lives in North Hills. She also pays a taxi to take her back and forth to pick up the children.
“We are advocating for the school … because it’s near our home and it is what we require,” Pablo said through a Spanish interpreter. “I am happy (at Valor), my grandchildren are happy here. The new campus will have ample and green space for the children to play, and we have to work with the whole community so we can secure that place … and we won’t have to spend so much on a taxi.”
The current school on church grounds in Arleta is set up in 10 bungalows. Children play on an asphalt parking lot with very little green space. To use the multipurpose room, they pay a fee. Parking for teachers and visitors is limited and challenging.
“It’s a great place to find nooks and crannies to creatively use,” said founding Principal May Oey. “We use the hallways, we use a little outdoor office area, we have a garden area where our resource teachers take our kids out just to work with them. It’s cozy. Our teachers are flexible in how they do things.”
The opponents of the school include more than 60 area residents and teachers. They raised more than $5,000 to launch an effort to persuade the City of Los Angeles to designate the Plummer house a historical structure.
The group has held protests along Plummer Street and Sepulveda Boulevard to drum up support for their concept of protecting the historic house and turning it into a museum that depicts the early 1900s when the San Fernando Valley was filled with farm land.
“This home was built in 1914, it’s a historic home,” said Anita Goldbaum, a North Hills resident who lives about a half-mile from the proposed Bright Star school project. “While they may not tear down (the Plummer house), they can gut it,” she claimed. “How do you have offices, with sinks and bathrooms and everything else? There’s no way they would not have to break down walls and change the home’s interior and destroy the history of this community.”
Neighbor Debra Francisco agrees with her friend’s fears.
“This house is a treasure in the San Fernando Valley,” Francisco said. “There aren’t many places like this … and to pretty much have it destroyed, if Valor takes it over, it would really be a crime for all of us here and that’s including the children.”
Tarzana resident Sarah Megan Heller, a parent with a son at Carlos Santana Arts Academy in North Hills, built a decade ago near the proposed school site, is worried that enrollment at her son’s school will decrease if Valor Elementary School attracts families from the North Hills neighborhood.
“While they may make big promises that they are providing a better education, I contend that they are not any better,” Heller said of Bright Star. “They are just better at advertising.”
“What happens to (Carlos Santana Arts Academy) if Valor moves even closer and grows bigger,” she asked. Heller worried that, “Santana’s enrollment will shrink as a result. Santana will have to lay off teachers, combine multiple grades into single classrooms as is the case in my son’s classroom this year and (there will be) more empty classrooms.”
Heller said because of falling birth rates there will be fewer students in LAUSD in the coming years.
“We need to invest in the schools we have,” she added. “We need our elected officials at the school board and the city to look at the big picture and decide what is the best way to move forward. Valor Academy (is) a business looking at their own interests and purchasing land without regard for the neighborhood and the other schools there.”
Esther Calderon, who has been a kindergarten dual language teacher at Carlos Santana since 2013 and a teacher since 1997, said another reason she opposes the Bright Star school is the lack of green space in North Hills.
“The North Hills Preservation Consortium really has a great plan with the Plummer Street project, restoring the historic house,” Calderon said. Turning the Plummer house into “a small museum depicting early California history has great appeal, as an educator in our own backyard … We all see the value in seeing this as a museum or green space … in contrast to another school along with the traffic (and) pollution concerns being so close to the freeway. It seems like a backroom deal.”
Hilda Rubio, who for four years has been a kindergarten teacher at Carlos Santana, says the community will be directly impacted by a new grade school, citing increased traffic and air pollution.
“I have spoken with neighbors … and nobody has a clue and this (new school) is just going to happen. If we were informed in community meetings or something with our local leadership, then people have a chance to speak up and say how they really feel about this. But … we found out by sheer coincidence.”
There is no scheduled date yet at Los Angeles City Hall for the vote on designating the Plummer house a historic monument. But as long as Bright Star moves through the city’s required phases for building a new school, the odds are that a new school will rise on the empty land next to the Plummer house.