After three groundbreakings and many other false starts, the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed Monday to build a permanent home for the King/Drew Medical Magnet and make it seven times larger, to accommodate 1,700 students.
With the new name of King/Drew High School of Medicine and Science, to emphasize its focus on physical and space sciences, the school could open as early as the fall of 1998.
"My God! I thought I was going to die before this time had come," said "Sweet" Alice Harris, executive director of the Parents of Watts, as she and other longtime advocates for the school hugged district administrators in the hallway following the board vote.
"Whenever parents would say to us, 'How long?' we would say, 'Not long,' " Harris said. "Tonight I'm going to call them and say, 'Right now.' "
Under Monday's approval, the district is to finance the construction by selling $68 million in certificates of participation, which will cost the public about $110 million over the 20-year life of the bonds.
The medical magnet, which opened in 1983, currently is housed in 10 portable classrooms lined up next to the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. Because the county property next door--where a permanent structure will be built--lies inside Compton Unified School District boundaries, 10% of the future school's students are to come from that district.
The idea of building a full-scale magnet school preceded the portable school's opening and received its first school board approval in 1991. However, the project went through a variety of changes--in plans, in the contractor and most recently in seismic construction regulations because of the Northridge earthquake.
Before the vote, a spokeswoman for Advocates for Black Children scolded school board members for the delays. But Dorothy Rochelle later acknowledged that many of the problems were out of the board's control. She said she and other advocates "really got busy" four years ago, when Kenneth Hahn, then a Los Angeles County supervisor, threatened to take back the land sold by the county to the district for $1.
Unlike most other Los Angeles Unified magnets, which have lower minority student bodies than the district average, the medical magnet is about three-quarters African American students. It is a non-selective magnet, open to any students interested in the health professions, and has attracted nationwide attention for its relationships with the university and with adjacent Martin Luther King Hospital.
All 250 current students spend part of their school week at the hospital, said King/Drew Principal Ernie Roy, learning about career interests ranging from child care to cardiology.
A recent state review found that King/Drew had increased its college attendance rates by 23% in 1994, despite a general statewide decline. Roy attributed that increase partly to the school's small size, which allows more individual attention.
A few of those students go on to medical school each year. Roy said he would like to see that number increase and hopes to propose a medical school student mentoring program in planning sessions for the new school, scheduled to begin next week.