Coming of Age


Nostalgia descends on most school campuses about this time of year as teachers watch children fly out the door for summer, bound for another grade in another classroom come September.

But the sentiment will run especially thick when the last bell before vacation rings this afternoon at Wagon Wheel Elementary School in the outlying canyons of southeastern Orange County. There, both a community and its students have come of age during the past school year.

One of about a dozen new public schools in Orange County, Wagon Wheel Elementary opened nine months ago with hopes of becoming a center of public life in a rapidly growing neighborhood of gated subdivisions next to Gen. Thomas F. Riley Wilderness Park.

It also was overcrowded from Day 1.

How this school came to life for 178 days of learning is a story with details that resonate with principals, teachers and parents anywhere.

There was the installation of an urgently needed stoplight in front of the school last fall to ease the pre-8 a.m. and post-2 p.m. traffic jams. There was the addition of nine portable classrooms in winter, an equally urgent task to accommodate smaller classes for third-graders.

A mascot had to be picked (the Mustangs), a PTA organized (it raised about $60,000) and a vintage hay wagon with rusted wheels procured (a local business loaned one for the school's front entrance).

A barbecue in October and a sock hop in March drew crowds so large that parked cars filled the school ball field.

"That school really binds us as a community. It's a fabulous school," said Jill Harmon, a retail consultant and parent volunteer. She moved to the neighborhood, an unincorporated area next to Coto de Caza, from Long Beach, in part to move her two daughters out of an urban school system.

Wagon Wheel remains a work very much in progress. Even as students were taking their last quizzes, a backhoe was grading a far corner of the playground in preparation for more portable classrooms. Enrollment in the school designed for 722 students is expected to surge to 1,050 in the next year. Can the restless fifth-graders in Elise Pieper's class, headed soon for middle school, understand what it took to launch this school? Probably not. But Pieper, 26, knows.

In September, Pieper had marveled at the good fortune she had in finding her first full-time teaching job. "This school is so new and fashionable, I felt like I was being introduced to a million-dollar home," she said at the time.

Now Pieper chuckles at that quote. "It's still too small," she said of the school. "That's the only problem--it's a million-dollar home with a family of 900."

Indeed, plans for accommodating more children in this "home" have progressed and will continue well into the future. That is the way in southern Orange County. The supercharged real estate market is drawing new families with school-age children to this region as fast as builders can lay out six-lane roadways leading to new hillside homes with two- and three-car garages.

Principal Dick Campbell expects the school to have 27 portable classrooms by September--five more than its permanent structure holds. The unbridled growth worries some parents who came here expecting the best in public education that Orange County and California have to offer. Harmon, the parent from Long Beach, said her daughter Katie's second-grade class began the year without a permanent room and was forced to roam from space to space for two months.

Sally Garber, 40, who moved to Coto de Caza from Texas last year, has a son finishing second grade at Wagon Wheel and a daughter finishing sixth grade at nearby Las Flores Middle School, which is growing just as fast. She sees the crowding firsthand as a lunch monitor at the elementary school.

Garber said she wished that state education officials could cap the size of schools as easily as they cap the size of classes. "At some point, you begin to jeopardize safety and quality," she said.

But Campbell points out that Wagon Wheel Elementary occupies 13 acres, "a big chunk of land," with plenty of room for expansion.

The principal was amazed that nearly 2,000 people came to the '50s-style dance in March. In part, he said, the turnout was a function of public curiosity and the sheer newness of the school. But there was something else at work too. Until this year the neighborhood never had a public school to call its own.

"I have never in my whole life seen so many people come to an elementary school event," Campbell said. "It's a testimony to the fact that the school is the center of the community."

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