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Santa Clarita / Antelope Valley : 70 Ninth-Graders at Vasquez High School Are Off to a Full Year of Firsts : Education: The students are being given the opportunity to play a role in developing their new campus in Acton.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They arrived via bicycle, foot and bus for the first day of a year that is destined to be filled with countless firsts.

Seventy students filed into classrooms when a whistle was blown at 8 a.m. Tuesday--marking the start of the first day of school at Vasquez High School, home this year only to ninth-graders.

Tuesday morning’s whistle signified the first day of instruction for the newly created Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District, which July 1 took over high school education in the two rural communities nestled between the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys. The district expanded from kindergarten through eighth grade to kindergarten through 12th grade following the approval by area voters in November to break away from the Antelope Valley Union High School District.

Wanting to take on their new challenge quickly, but aware of the dangers of overextending themselves, district trustees decided to begin educating ninth-graders this year while having students in 10th through 12th grades continue at Antelope Valley high schools. The plan is for an additional grade level to be added each year so that in 1996, there will be a complete four-year high school.

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The ninth-graders who came Tuesday are expected to be members of the first graduating class of Vasquez High. They are being given the opportunity to play a role in developing their new school.

Over the summer, students picked the school colors (purple and gold), selected a mascot (a mustang) and designed a school crest (featuring a horse, torch, a pair of shaking hands and a silhouette of a person on horseback with mountains in the background).

Principal Betsey Levering said students will soon help write a school song and develop campus rules.

“I sense pride,” Tom Brown, superintendent of the three-school, 1,823-student district, said of the Vasquez High students. “They see themselves as special. They are special. They’re pretty lucky when you think about it, being the first class. . . . They’re going to be setting the tone for just about everything.”

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One student, for example, wanted to be part of a cross-country team. He was told to get a few friends together, and the school now boasts a seven-member team. And the participation is by no means limited to students.

Community involvement in the school is already apparent. A survey was distributed to residents to determine the electives that would be offered to students this year. The winners: word processing and consumer economics. There are committees that deal with everything from finances to curriculum. And the sports teams are coached by volunteers, overseen by a volunteer athletic director, while an athletics booster club has already held some fund-raisers.

“The things that are going to happen for kids at Vasquez High School outside of the instructional program are going to happen because of parent/volunteer participation,” Levering said. “All the support programs (such as athletic teams) are totally run by volunteers. I see that as being the way it’s going to be for a while.”

Finances are tight at Vasquez High School, like at many schools in the state, and the staffing is small.

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Two full-time and four part-time teachers, including two special education instructors, are teaching English, Spanish, physical science, math, physical education, honors classes and the two elective courses.

The students were given the option of attending Vasquez High School--for now just a few rooms on an existing middle school campus--or transferring to the Antelope Valley Union High School District. About half of the district’s 150 ninth-graders chose to attend Vasquez. Most of those who decided to attend school in the Antelope Valley said they had older brothers and sisters at those schools, according to district records.

Those at Vasquez for the first day Tuesday offered a variety of reasons why they selected Vasquez over an Antelope Valley high school.

“We’re starting up all new things,” first-day student Steve Ruiz said. “It should be pretty fun.”

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Some were there because their parents made them, others because friends were attending the school and still others because the prospect of helping develop a high school was too irresistible to pass up. Students also said that they wouldn’t have to contend with gangs at their small school and that they would get more individual attention from teachers.

“Why would you want to be with 2,000 kids when you can be with (70),” student Melissa Shank said.

While there is a lot of excitement about the new school, there are some definite downsides to it.

High school students are housed on a portion of a middle school campus, although it is hoped that a permanent school can be built in two years on land the district owns. And course offerings are limited, and extracurricular activities are even scarcer.

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Student Mike Ridenour, who is attending Vasquez High because he couldn’t arrange a ride from Acton to Palmdale High, reluctantly admitted Tuesday: “It’ll be OK. It’s just going to be different.”


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