Campus, Closed by Judge's Decree, Will Reopen : Once Deemed Too Segregated, Noisy, Lennox High to Be Elementary School

Times Staff Writer

A Latino high school, phased out of existence in 1984 after a federal judge condemned it as illegally segregated and afflicted too much with jet noise, will rise again--this time as an elementary school.

Giant jetliners will still shriek overhead on their way to landings at nearby Los Angeles International Airport when the new school opens on the former Lennox High School campus in about a year.

And the new school will have a high percentage of minority youngsters--97% compared to 87% when nearly 1,300 high school students crowded the 32-acre campus.

But the noise pollution and racial segregation that doomed 27-year-old Lennox High to closure apparently will not hinder the Lennox elementary district's operation of a school for younger minority pupils at the same site.

Barred as High School

In approving a 1982 agreement to close Lennox High and disperse its students to other campuses in the Centinela Valley Union High School District, U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. decreed that the campus could never again be used as a comprehensive high school.

Inevitably, any new high school would be segregated, the judge said, because of the high percentage of Latino youths, mostly from immigrant families, in the Lennox community.

But nothing was said about the possible use of Lennox High as a racially isolated elementary school, and the groups that fought for desegregation of the high school students have not raised similar concerns about the new school.

The Lennox elementary district, which has operated year-round classes for several years in an effort to pack its rapidly growing student population into five schools, acquired the high school campus from Centinela Valley for $8.2 million in a recently concluded deal.

Why is the campus suitable for educating younger minority children when it wasn't good enough for high school students?

All Minority Schools

For starters, there is the matter of jurisdiction. All of the schools in the Lennox elementary district are almost totally minority. Thus, any effort to desegregate one or all of them would require transfers or busing across district lines--a measure rarely considered in the drive to integrate the nation's school population in the 1960s and '70s.

Lennox High, on the other hand, was part of a system that had other schools--Hawthorne and Leuzinger--where whites were still in the majority. They could--and eventually did--absorb the Lennox students and remain racially mixed schools.

Timing appears to be another important element in the public and official acceptance of a new segregated school in place of the one forced out of existence. By 1982, the passion to integrate schools had begun to wane and Lennox became one of the last school systems in Southern California to be desegregated under court orders.

"We're about as segregated as you can get," said one Lennox elementary school official. "But there isn't much interest in the issue any more."

District Needs Money

Money also makes a difference. The financially strapped Centinela Valley district, struggling with steep declines in enrollment at its other campuses and embroiled in a bitter controversy over Lennox High's future, made only sporadic attempts to maintain facilities and programs at its minority school--the only one in the district that had increasing enrollment.

Lennox elementary, on the other hand, is a bustling, flourishing district with a relatively strong budget derived from its increasing enrollment and its status as a minority district, which makes it qualified for a variety of state and federal grants.

Enrollment has grown by nearly a thousand students in the past six years to the current level of about 5,000, providing the district with increasing state aid based on average daily attendance.

Supt. Ken Moffet said state officials viewed the purchase of the Lennox High campus as a good bargain that would meet the space needs of the expanding district without incurring the much higher costs of constructing a new school. In addition to putting up the $8.2 million to buy Lennox High, the state allocated $2 million for renovations.

Thus, the intermediate school rising on the figurative ashes of Lennox High will provide a considerably enhanced educational environment for the new students.

To Be Soundproof

Jet noise will not disturb the sixth, seventh and eighth graders who will move into campus classrooms when the renovations are completed, probably in August of 1986, Moffet said.

Window openings will closed up, soundproofing materials placed in walls and ceilings, rooms refurbished and new equipment added, he said. Students will be able to study in air-conditioned comfort and quiet.

"The acquisition makes sense to us," Moffet said. "We're going to have a lot more room and we'll be able to make a first-class program even better."

He said about 1,400 students will attend the new intermediate school. Felton Junior High, the district's present intermediate school, will be converted for use by youngsters in kindergarten through the fifth grade, he said.

Qualified for Grant

Moffet said his district qualified for the state grants by first exhausting every other approach to solving its space problems. Those measures included running staggered attendance schedules, starting year-round classes in 1981 and packing the district's five campuses with 65 portable classrooms.

Meanwhile, the Centinela Valley district is eagerly awaiting the arrival of its $8.2-million windfall later this year.

"It will be most welcome," said Supt. McKinley Nash. "We've been in dire financial straits for years."

Proceeds from the sale of surplus school property can be used only for capital improvements, Nash said, but state law does not impose such limits on how the district can spend interest earned by investing the money.

So the district will be shopping around for the right investment opportunities and hiring consultants to advise the school board on where to start making improvements in facilities and programs, Nash said.

Much to Do

After all those lean years, he said, the district can easily use a million dollars or so in interest payments for such things as catching up on building maintenance, building new science labs, buying more textbooks and audio-visual equipment and upgrading gyms and tracks.

Benefits from the sale of Lennox High should start becoming evident in the next school year, Nash said.

The battle over school closures in the Centinela Valley district goes back to at least 1977, when the first effort was made to close Lennox. It grew more bitter in 1980 when a committee formed to study the system's problems with falling enrollment and shrinking revenues revived the proposal to close the minority school at the northern fringe of the district.

However, a sharply divided school board voted instead to shut down Lawndale High and reassign its students to the Hawthorne and Leuzinger campuses.

The decision provoked an outcry from Lawndale boosters, who began a campaign to reverse the board's decision. The strategy apparently was to force the closure of Lennox, which the Lawndale group hoped would lead eventually to the reopening of Lawndale High when the district's enrollment rose again.

Concerned for Students

Consultants and attorneys hired by the Lawndale group raised the focus of the community debate to a loftier level. One of the Lawndale leaders told a reporter in 1982 that his group had been motivated by anger over the loss of the local school at the outset, but became sincerely concerned about the plight of the Lennox students after being better "educated" by the consultants on the larger issues.

In mid-1981, the group filed a class-action suit against the district, charging that the trustees had intentionally discriminated against the Lennox students by keeping them segregated in an inferior school with deteriorating facilities.

During the trial in Hatter's court, sociologists and psychologists warned that racial isolation posed a serious threat to the academic and personal development of the Lennox students.

One of the witnesses was Neil Sullivan, chairman of the education department at California State University, Long Beach, and a prominent figure in the desegregation of the Berkeley school district in the mid-1960s. He declared that "public schools are the last great hope to provide an integrated experience" for minority students.

Parents Opposed Closure

Parents at Lennox High countered that the minority community needed its own high school to foster pride and identity and to provide its students, many of whom spoke limited English, with specialized programs that the parents feared would not be given adequate emphasis at other schools.

Closing the high school campus, they said, also would take away the center of social and community activities. They portrayed Lennox as a victim of community rivalries, the "schemes of hypocrites" and the "whims of do-gooders."

The costly litigation--the district paid more than $200,000 for its own and the Lawndale group's legal fees--led to an out-of-court settlement in which the district agreed to phase out the Lennox campus by not admitting any new students at the freshman level.

In the exchange of concessions, the Lawndale group, called Concerned Parents and Students of the Centinela Valley Union High School District, abandoned its demands for an immediate reopening of Lawndale High.

Last Class Graduated

Hatter approved the settlement, adding his decree against ever again using the Lennox campus as a comprehensive high school. The school graduated its last class in June, 1984.

"Looking back, one can hope that everything turned out for the good," said Trustee Ruth Morales, who opposed closing the Lennox campus. "The money will benefit us, of course, but what's more important, Lennox High will continue as a place for educating kids."

School officials said Centinela Valley's long decline in enrollment (about 2% a year over the last decade) appears to be leveling off as the influx of immigrants spreads to other parts of the district. The current enrollment of about 5,800 students is close to the capacity of the two comprehensive high schools still operating.

If enrollment climbs--as Lawndale activists have long predicted--it is widely believed that the Lawndale High campus, now occupied by the district's headquarters, continuation high school and adult education department, will be reopened.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°