Teacher William Pasderin's opening remarks Tuesday to the rows of high school students seated at glistening new IBM computers were a little bit of classroom rules and a whole lot of pep talk.
"You are going to blow the socks off the competition," he told his first Introduction to Computers class at the just-opened Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School in East Los Angeles.
"This is heaven--the best students, the latest equipment," Pasderin said in explaining why he believes Bravo will soon surpass the area's best high schools.
"This is a private school in a public system, and this is where you go when you want to get into UCLA, Harvard, Cal Berkeley, MIT," he added.
As classes started in the nation's second-largest public school system, Bravo gave the overcrowded, financially pressured district something to exult in. From the electronic motion sensors that turn classroom lights on and off to the state-of-the-art science labs, Bravo, in one of the city's more crowded barrios, is five gleaming, air-conditioned stories of firsts:
First high school to be constructed in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 17 years. First school building with more than two stories. First to be financed with private money. First to be built specifically as a magnet, one of the specialized, racially blended learning centers that have become the district's most sought-after feature.
The newest magnet is designed to prepare its pupils for health science careers.
The students who walked through the four-year high school's expansive, mural-adorned lobby for the first time Tuesday escaped the broiling classrooms and aging, overcrowded schools that awaited many of the district's other pupils. District officials expect to find about 16,000 new students--pushing enrollment close to the 626,000 mark--when they take their first official tally next month.
For those who are not already attending the 170 schools that operate around the calendar to relieve overcrowding, Tuesday also marked the end of a tradition. By next summer, all the of district's 650 schools and centers will be in session throughout the year, with the long summer vacation replaced by a series of frequent, short breaks.
Los Angeles is gaining numbers of students unfamiliar with English or hampered by severe poverty; its test scores and other measures of student achievement remain low, especially for blacks and Latinos. Its dropout rate, although improving, is still high. Officials had to cut $220 million from its $3.9 billion budget this year, and the continuing fiscal battles in Sacramento, which provides most of the funds for districts throughout California, forced them all to start the school year without knowing how much money they will have.
But as students stepped off the buses at Bravo, it was easy to forget all that.
"Everything is so nice--this looks like it could be a college," said Charis Taylor, 15, whose last school was Bancroft Junior High on the Westside.
"This is probably the most technologically advanced school in Los Angeles," said Kent Vanderlip, 17, of Studio City. He attended Lincoln Medical Magnet, Bravo's 300-student predecessor, which was housed in several temporary classrooms.
Hien Ta, 14, who dreams of becoming a pediatrician, said she was grateful for the chance to quit the long bus rides between her home near Dodger Stadium and Porter Junior High School in the northern San Fernando Valley.
Aspiring psychiatrist Luis Axume, 16, lives close enough to the school to walk. But even if he didn't, he would still come here, he said: "It's great--everything's new. I know there are better opportunities here."
While Tamickio Tillman, 14, of Watts, said she is a little uncomfortable with the school's imposing size, she likes its businesslike atmosphere: "I know I can learn here."
Bravo's students, like those at the district's other magnets, are handpicked from applicants who believe the opportunity for a specialized education program is worth a bus ride that can last well over an hour each way. For years the district has been criticized for putting most of its magnet schools--started as a desegregation tool--in largely Anglo neighborhoods.
In this case, it is the suburban students who have the longest bus rides. Slightly more than half of Bravo's 1,000 students come from surrounding communities. The rest are drawn from throughout the district, including many from South-Central Los Angeles, said Principal Rosa Maria Hernandez.
Saying that Latinos and blacks are seriously under-represented in health care fields, Hernandez said the school--whose enrollment can grow to 2,000--should help correct the shortage.
"This also offers a real sense of pride to the community," said Hernandez, who spent much of Tuesday morning helping students find their way around the new campus, named after a late Eastside physician who aided many of his young neighbors who wanted to go into medicine.
The school's close association with USC will enable high school students to participate in university research projects, use medical libraries and accompany physicians on their rounds at the adjacent Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center complex.
Marilyn Perron, one of 46 teachers chosen for Bravo, said she is excited about the opportunity to work with university and medical center staff in developing the high school's health sciences curriculum.
"I just fell in love with this--the potential is tremendous," said Perron, who taught biology at Fremont High School.
Thanks to a joint operating agreement with the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department, students are able to use the playing fields at Hazard Park next door, and the high school was fitted onto just 3.5 acres.
Because of a bank financing plan and a leasing arrangement with a private health services corporation, the $45-million school was built in 27 months instead of the four to five years required when using state school bond money. National Medical Enterprises built the facility, which is being leased to the school district for $4.7 million a year. The district, which obtained financing from two local banks, will own the school after 20 years.
Board of Education member Roberta Weintraub, who heads the district's Building Committee, said she hopes the innovations and multiagency cooperation that led to Bravo's construction can pave the way for badly needed schools in other areas.
"This shows you don't always need a lot of land, you can come in on time and on budget, and you can work with the city and private enterprise and others to get the job done," Weintraub said. "This ought to be the model."
Francisco Bravo, who died in May at age 80, was a physician who provided more than three decades of service to East Los Angeles residents. He was born in Ventura County, the son of migrant farm workers, but eventually came to own thousands of acres of farmland. Bravo worked his way through the USC School of Pharmacy and Stanford University School of Medicine. He specialized in family practice and surgery. In 1964, he opened the East Los Angeles-based Bravo Medical Clinic, where he encouraged youngsters to pursue medical careers. That same year, Bravo was the founding president of the Pan-American National Bank and sold Del Webb land in Riverside County that was to become the site of Sun City.