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Judge’s Order Deflates Students’ Festive Mood

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The classroom walls were stripped bare of posters, lockers were cleaned out and textbooks had been turned in at Pinole Valley High School.

But what had been a somewhat festive mood among students turned somber Tuesday, one day after a Superior Court judge ordered the state not to allow the financially troubled Richmond Unified School District to close its schools six weeks early.

“I feel like we’re being cheated,” said Lakisha Rader, 16, a junior at Pinole Valley. “It was sort of like the school was giving us a piece of candy, unwrapping it and holding it out to us--only to snatch it away.”

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Many students, looking forward to the extended holiday, had finished their last homework assignments, planned their vacations or were about to get early starts on summer jobs. Faculty members had worked feverishly to issue grades, empty their desks and even permitted their pupils on Monday to adjourn to the sprawling courtyard during class time.

Heather Parker said she thought it was “really neat” that Tuesday would have been the last day of classes, adding that she had already made plans to travel this summer and start junior college in the fall. “We weren’t leaning much anyway,” the 18-year-old senior said.

But at least one student, on the verge of failing a class, was ecstatic over the decision to keep the district’s schools open, said Joanne Barkley, a history and economics teacher.

“She came running down the hallway toward me screaming: ‘I’m saved! I’m saved!’ ” Barkley said.

Another student--a senior who found herself several classes shy of a diploma--phoned Principal Linda Lester on Monday night and told her how excited she was that school would not end.

“I told her we should send flowers to (Contra Costa Superior Court Judge) Ellen James,” Lester said he told the enthusiastic student. “And she said, ‘Flowers? We should buy her a car!’ ”

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For teachers, the problem is regaining the attention of their students while state officials decide what to do.

“Most of my students checked out mentally about a week ago,” said Sean Zwagerman, an English teacher.

“I think the teachers are asking what we’re going to do to motivate ourselves,” Zwagerman said. “I’m hoping in a couple of weeks we’ll be back to normal.”

The announcement capped weeks of uncertainty and mixed feelings for teachers and students in the bankrupt district. Facing a $29-million deficit, the 31,300-student district in Northern California is the second in state history to file for bankruptcy protection, contending that it had only enough money to meet the payroll through Tuesday.

Administrators say they are hopeful that as soon as teachers unpack their belongings and students move back into their lockers, regular instruction can resume. Schools are now scheduled to close on June 14.

“Last week was one of the most stressful weeks we’ve lived through,” said Terry G. Clark, Pinole Valley vice principal. “The ups and downs have been tremendous, and now that we’re back, I think the faculty is relieved.”

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Lester said she is confident she can restore a level of discipline to students who, until Tuesday, were sometimes wandering the hallways with little regard for their class schedules.

As part of a plan to “tighten things up,” she said she will not allow late students into classes and will keep them after school or put them on a work detail. “By Monday, things will be back to normal,” she said.

For the last three years, teachers say they have been caught in the middle of a badly mismanaged district, and worry about continuing stress until Richmond’s problems are solved.

“The prospects for next year are ghastly,” said Mike Prenter, a social science teacher. “When I entered this profession, it was not a moneymaker, but the way things are now. . . .”

Linda Samuels-Rojo, who transferred to Pinole from Los Angeles to work as a special education teacher, said: “I moved up here to go to a better school district and I ended up in a much worse one.”

As a joke--or maybe as a favor--someone left business cards advertising the services of a mental health hot line in faculty mailboxes Tuesday morning.

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“Who knows,” said Prenter. “We may need it.”

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