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Earthquake: The Road To Recovery : Last 2 District Schools Closed by Quake Brace for Reopenings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the school bell finally marks the beginning of the new semester at John F. Kennedy High School on Tuesday morning, students will find a campus where bungalows have replaced many of the once-familiar classrooms that were made unsafe by last month’s massive earthquake.

Kennedy and El Camino Real High School, which is scheduled to resume classes Wednesday, are the last L.A. Unified District schools to reopen. They have been closed since the 6.8-magnitude Northridge quake caused major damage to both campuses Jan. 17.

Using a patchwork of trucked-in trailers and parts of buildings not damaged by the temblor, school officials have been working tirelessly to reconstruct their campuses and maintain their humor in the face of what will almost certainly be a trying start to the spring semester.

“There is always mass confusion the first day of the semester; this will just be a little more,” joked Kennedy office assistant Roberta Thompson.

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Pete Fries, Kennedy’s assistant principal, has been hoping that good planning will forestall some of the chaos on the Granada Hills campus.

Huddling with groups of teachers who wandered through the campus and told him their concerns, Fries on Friday was still trying to distribute bungalow keys, paint new parking stalls in the rain, set up classroom furniture and equip classrooms with such basic educational tools as pencils and paper.

“You try to anticipate everything that’s going to happen, and you try to plan for everything,” Fries said. “You sit home at night and say, ‘What’s going to come up and what’s the solution to that problem?’ But there is always that one thing that’s going to get you.”

Since several projects will not be finished until Monday, El Camino Principal Joyce Washington said that reserving a day for staff orientation and last-minute problems means that she cannot open the Woodland Hills school until Wednesday at the earliest.

And it has been that way all along. District officials initially surveyed the damage to the two high schools and said they could not open before March 7. When groups of parents demanded a quicker response, the district pledged to open sooner.

But as a revised start date of Feb. 15 drew closer, officials were forced to acknowledge that the new plans were too ambitious. A series of new complications, including rain and high wind, hampered the delivery and installation of the bungalows.

From the beginning, district officials warned that they had notebooks full of problems at both schools. Asbestos exposed during the quake had to be removed. Heating and cooling apparatus needed to be revamped. Downed ceiling and lighting systems had to be replaced. School books, papers, and files had to be relocated. Some damaged buildings had to be redesigned to be brought up to current building codes.

And students had to be graded for their fall work, placed into spring programs, offered interim classes and informed of each of those plans.

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At El Camino, almost all regular classrooms will be uninhabitable for the next two months; at Kennedy, students will be out of their regular rooms for at least the rest of the semester. District officials decided in the first days after the quake that for students, all bets were off. Finals, which were supposed to have been been in the last week of January, were canceled. Extra work or outstanding assignments could be turned in but were not mandatory, and semester grades would be recorded as they stood--although there was some room for negotiation.

The physical plant was another matter.

During the first week after the quake, neither school had gas, water or electricity, said Doug Brown, the district’s director of facilities. After utilities were back on line, they revealed the water and gas-line ruptures caused by the quake, meaning they had to be shut off again for repairs.

Once leaks were fixed, aftershocks kicked in automatic shut-offs and sent workers back to check for new breaks in the lines.

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“It was kind of a roller coaster,” Brown said. “You go down to the bottom and get things fixed, and then you get another significant aftershock and you go back down to the bottom.”

At El Camino, district officials determined that 102 classrooms were not usable because of stress cracks in the masonry, downed ceilings and loosened non-bearing partition walls. The roof on the cafeteria and school store building was also deemed unsafe and rain ruined the gymnasium floor.

Brown said 51 rooms at El Camino will be repaired within the next 30 days; 51 more will be ready 30 days after that.

Problems at Kennedy were more serious. The administration building, with all the school’s offices and two floors of classrooms, was condemned, and a replacement or significantly revamped building is not likely to be ready for two years, Brown said.

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In the B and C buildings, minor stress damage to interior walls, cracked plaster, falling light systems, ceilings that must be redesigned, and water damage will likely render the buildings useless for the next three to four months, Brown said.

The bungalows themselves have been an unending headache. Getting them to the schools--and wired for power and gas--was one matter. At Kennedy, Fries said, the last bungalow was not in place until Feb. 10 because the truck bringing it broke down. At El Camino, workers were scrambling to carpet the last of 39 bungalows that had arrived during the week.

Throughout the reconstruction process, parents and students have given the district a mixed review: alternating between quiet acceptance at a Kennedy parents’ meeting to hostile jeering at a similar meeting for El Camino.

But school officials say the best referendum on their performance has been the low transfer rate: Although rules for changing schools were liberalized for students within the hardest-hit areas, Dick Browning, the district’s director of the senior high school division, estimates that fewer than 1% have done so.

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“It’s really an emergency drill,” El Camino’s Washington said with a sigh. “But it’s not a practice. It’s the real thing where you put into practice everything you have learned.

“If this were an ongoing thing, I’m sure it would get better over time. As it was, everyone did the best they could.”

At Kennedy, Fries noted how far the school has come. He remembered his first view of the school: The windows were boarded up. Huge cracks rimmed the windows and crisscrossed the bricks. A walkway roof sagged out of alignment.

“Where do we start?” Fries recalled thinking. “The concept of having to build a school with 60 bungalows, a new boiler, a new set of wiring and all new phones in five weeks had not hit at that time.”

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