What students and parents are expecting from the Porter Ranch school relocation

When Walter Arwood moved to Porter Ranch with his husband and daughter in February, he was seeking refuge from city life.

The community quickly came to provide stability for his family in a crucial way: Arwood took custody of his niece, Carly, over the summer. Carly had been in the foster care system and was "deathly afraid" to start school, but Porter Ranch Community School became her rock.

Then, Arwood said, that sense of calm and safety was disrupted. Carly, 12, missed the last two weeks of school before winter break because she wasn't feeling well.

Arwood said he believed that the fumes released by the Aliso Canyon gas leak made her ill. Now, she is bracing for a new challenge.

When the public school students of the upscale San Fernando Valley community of Porter Ranch return from winter break this week, they'll be starting fresh in new locations, and one day later than their peers.

The students from the schools, Porter Ranch Community School and Castlebay Lane Charter School, are moving after a gas leak that has lasted more than 70 days, resulting in reports of nausea, headaches, and nosebleeds. The L.A. Board of Education decided in December to move students from the community school, which is kindergarten through eighth grade, to Northridge Middle School, and students from Castlebay to Sunny Brae Avenue Elementary School in Winnetka.

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Monday is a day off for Porter Ranch students to give teachers time to prepare their classrooms; parents from Porter Ranch have been invited to tour the campuses. Unlike other L.A. Unified students, the relocated students will have their first day of class on Tuesday.

The Los Angeles Unified School District spent winter break trying to make the transition to the new campuses as seamless as possible. But some parents worry that the adjustment will be difficult, especially because it comes in the middle of the year and amid other such drastic changes as home relocations for many.

Beyond the tangibles, parents from the area are cautious but also curious about what will happen when the two schools are combined with the others. The schools will now serve students with varying economic backgrounds. In Porter Ranch, the median household income was $121,428 in 2008, compared with $62,535 in Winnetka and $67,906 in Northridge.

The Porter Ranch Community School temporary buildings set up at Northridge Middle School are separated by a fence; elementary school students have their own entrance and pickup area.

"It's a little bubble, because it's almost like the world is perfect there," said David Duran, who has three children who attend the community school. "There's no bullying, there's no fighting, no one is on drugs, no one's been pregnant. At the new school, they're walled in, they're keeping them in this little bubble, but maybe we should let them interact."

Only the school's sixth- through eighth-graders will be on the main campus.

A Castlebay Lane father, who declined to be named because of his work as a therapist in the Porter Ranch community and in LAUSD schools, called the school "sheltered" and expressed concerns about how some Porter Ranch students would do in this new environment.

Other parents, however, doubt there will be problems.

"There's some classism that goes on between people in Porter Ranch," said Frances Gateward, an assistant professor at Cal State Northridge whose 8-year-old daughter attends Castlebay Lane.

"Some parents won't have their kids in school because they don't want them going to that school. I find it ironic because it won't affect their educational level because it's the same teacher."

At Sunny Brae, students from both schools will share a playground. "It's more of an open campus, but a separate section of the school," said Angelita Khazei, LAUSD's regional facilities director for the north region.

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Another issue for many families will be transportation. In L.A. Unified, only magnet schools typically provide busing. Starting this week, the district is offering transportation from the community school and Castlebay Lane to the new locations.

The bus trip will cover about eight miles, and LAUSD will provide supervision at the drop-off and pick-up points.

Duran, a community school father, grew up riding school buses in Las Vegas — but the idea of getting to school on a bus is making his children nervous.

"My kids are freaked out that they have to ride the bus," he said. "When I was growing up in Las Vegas, I had to take a bus from middle class suburbia to the ghetto. They need to learn those life lessons."

He plans on driving his children to school when he can, but since he travels a lot for work, they'll likely wind up riding the bus sometimes.

For the many families that have moved to housing outside of Porter Ranch because of the gas leak, there is no busing from their new homes to their old schools.

"Individual transportation from new homes isn't available right now," said Vivian Ekchian, the L.A. Unified district superintendent in charge of Porter Ranch. She said the district had suggested that Southern California Gas Co. help with transportation for relocated families.

The utility will compensate parents who drive from their new homes to the pickup points for their gas mileage, said spokeswoman Melissa Bailey.

The tab for dealing with the problem has exceeded $5 million so far, and the total could significantly surpass that number, said L.A. Unified general counsel David Holmquist.

The Board of Education has authorized its attorneys to sue the gas company for reimbursement, Holmquist said, but talks so far have been amicable although inconclusive.


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Times staff writers Howard Blume and Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.

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