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Spacing Schools 

Uh-oh! L.A.’s grand plan for creating classrooms won’t work

Wednesday, Feb 16 2000
Photo by Michael Powers
L.A. school officials have retreated from a bold school-conversion plan that was supposed to relieve a student-overcrowding crisis. Under the plan, the district would have converted middle schools to high schools, and elementary schools to middle schools. In four months, however, not one school has been firmly identified for conversion, as administrators have encountered either unremitting community hostility or disabling logistical problems.

“We cannot convert all of the middle schools to high schools, and all of the elementary to middle schools,” said interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines in an interview. “We cannot afford to.” And it’s not just money. Cortines also believes academic programs could suffer from students being assigned to unsuitable campuses: “I think I know about school buildings. There is no way.”

The remarks of Cortines, who took charge of the school system on January 18, underscore the magnitude of the overcrowding and its resistance to any quick fix. Cortines’ comments to the Weekly also are the first public acknowledgment from a top district official that a widespread school-conversion strategy, introduced with a flourish in November, simply isn’t going to work.

The pressure to find class seats increased further in January when the school board — acting on the recommendation of Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller — abandoned the half-finished, scandal-plagued Belmont Learning Complex, which sits on an old oil field. Miller concluded that he could produce the same 3,500 seats faster and cheaper at a site not plagued by oil-field con- tamination. At first, Cortines strongly supported the Miller recommendation. He later asked for further study instead, but was overridden by a board majority.

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Now Miller and Cortines have to deliver. One potential escape hatch for Belmont-area students is the site of the shuttered Ambassador Hotel, where a deal for a school is in the works. But that project presents obstacles of its own, mainly from preservationists who want to save the historic property and City Councilman Nate Holden who doesn’t.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system with 711,000 students, needs well over 100 new campuses, an enormous undertaking by any standard, especially for a school system that hasn’t built a single comprehensive high school in nearly 30 years. Miller has inherited a discredited school-facilities division, one decimated by retirements, suspensions, transfers and demotions in the wake of critical internal audits last year.

Miller’s magic bullet — the conversion plan — was based on the reality that large parcels of unpolluted land are hard to find in urban Los Angeles, while smaller schools for younger children are simpler and cheaper to construct. So in November, Miller proposed building 150 new primary centers to serve children in their own neighborhoods through the second or third grades. Existing elementary schools, meanwhile, would take in grades three or four through eight, while current middle schools would become small high schools. While conceptually compelling, his plan looks increasingly less practicable.

Superintendent Cortines, to whom Miller reports, said it simply makes no sense to mix and match students and buildings as though they were all interchangeable variables. While South Gate Middle School would work well as a high school, he said, the displaced middle school students would not fare as well: “There is not an elementary school that can [house] that kind of industrial-arts program.” In addition, South Gate Middle School “has some of the best physical-education facilities. It has an outstanding library. There is no elementary library as large as that library.” Elementary school classrooms, he added, are not the right size for older students, and elementary campuses don’t have science labs. “For us to say, we will provide you equity someplace else — we can’t do it.”

Nor did Miller’s plan receive rousing support in South Gate. An estimated 1,200 residents gave Miller an earful at a January 25 community meeting at South Gate Park.

“The parents were furious. They absolutely hated the new plan,” said Lorena Padilla-Melendez, field deputy for Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, whose staff organized the gathering. Parents did not like the grouping of fourth graders with eighth graders, even though some schools have been successful with those age spans.

South Gate residents were bound to be distrustful, given that the school board — again at Miller’s urging — had just killed a long-awaited elementary school and high school project in that city because the construction site was polluted. The elementary school has been needed since the desertion of Tweedy Elementary School in 1987 due to its own toxic contamination problem. For 13 years, the Tweedy staff has operated out of temporary bungalows in a city park. In response to the community outrage, Miller and his staff have pledged to reconsider all options in South Gate.

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