Last School Year on the Flight Path
The garden of 98th Street Elementary School is almost ready for harvest. Tomatoes, green beans and zucchini planted by students and their teachers are nearing ripeness. Curly leafed lettuce is shooting forth.
But by the time the crop is ready, there will be no one left on campus to gather it. The school is closing Thursday.
While the rest of the Los Angeles Unified School District has a massive building project underway, the 98th Street school faces a peculiar fate. The school sits on the flight path of Los Angeles International Airport, and that accident of geography sealed its fate.
Tired of the noise and pollution that come with the steady stream of jetliners overhead, the school’s neighbors began selling their houses seven years ago to the city agency that runs LAX. After Mayor James K. Hahn proposed building a passenger check-in center in the Manchester Square neighborhood, the city increased the pace of its buyout there, using funds from a federal noise mitigation grant.
Although Hahn’s plan is now in doubt, the buyout continues. The city estimates that the Manchester Square population has fallen from 7,100 before the buyout began to about 4,000 today.
“They have gutted our environment,” Principal Emannuel A. Annor said of airport growth that has all but emptied what once was a thriving neighborhood. “The school is no longer viable.”
As the neighborhood’s families moved away, the school has suffered. The 98th Street campus, built in 1951 to hold 500-600 students, enrolled only 235 students between pre-kindergarten and fifth grade this year. The money the district was spending to keep the school open was more than the money it was getting from state per-student funds.
“We’ve been watching this for a couple of years,” said school board member Marlene Canter, who represents the area. “At a certain number, it becomes inefficient to keep the school running.”
Earlier this year, school officials, worried that the drop would be even more dramatic by fall, informed the few families remaining at 98th Street that this would be its last school year.
Some of the schools’ current students are bused in from crowded campuses elsewhere. Others who moved out of the neighborhood since last September have continued to attend 98th Street to avoid switching schools mid-year. Only 150 students, Annor said, are still living in the Manchester Square neighborhood.
In addition, said Canter, the district is concerned about children’s safety in a school surrounded by abandoned buildings. Though airplanes still swoop overhead, the area around the school feels like a ghost town. Boarded-up houses circle the school property. “No Trespassing” signs abound, and few lawns are green anymore.
“It’s kind of depressing,” Annor acknowledged before showing a visitor around his school. “There’s a sense of depletion of the community.”
Elsewhere in the district, having enough room for classes and activities is a luxury, but here, the amount of empty space on campus is remarkable. The 98th Street school has a spacious parent center and a room just for the reading coach. Annor points them out with a chuckle.
The vast asphalt playground seemed to swallow up the small number of students playing on its expanse.
“I feel sad,” said Tori Thomas, 9, one of the remaining 98th Street students, during recess. “I don’t want the school to close. It’s fun.”
As the third-grader spoke, a plane zoomed by overhead.
This is daily life at the school; students have gotten used to the constant landings and takeoffs that take place nearby. Their classrooms are soundproofed, but on the playground, students ignore the noise of jetliners that roar by at regular, frequent intervals.
“One day, we’ll have a landing here,” Annor joked. “We have a big enough yard.”
For the students who remain at the school, this year has been a lesson in bittersweet goodbyes.
A group of fourth-grade girls huddled in a circle on the playground said they did not know where they would be going to school next year, or whether they would still be together. Students living in the 98th Street school area will be bused to Walgrove Elementary, about nine miles away, the closest school with the necessary space. They also have the option of applying to other schools.
Other students -- including those who are bused here -- will return to their home schools. Brigette Powers, 36, was waiting outside the school gate to pick up her son, Justice, a pre-kindergarten student at 98th Street. Her mother owns a home in the neighborhood, she said.
“I really don’t know what we’re doing next year,” Powers said. She’s thinking, she said, about Loyola Village, another nearby elementary school that has a performing arts magnet program. But it’s difficult, she said, to find a school of “the same quality.”
“We are trying to search for a good school, with teachers willing to put some effort forth.”
Annor said that in recent months, he has been worried about the morale of teachers. Their contracts with the district guarantee them a position but not necessarily at the schools or grades they want. There’s a “palpable concern about where to go next year,” he said, “the uncertainty of what anybody else is going to do in the future.”
Donna Campbell, a 98th Street teacher, said she was hoping to land another third-grade spot. “I’ve sent resumes out and contacted principals,” the 25-year veteran said. On a recent school day, during recess, Ellen DeLeston, the principal at Richland Elementary, visited Campbell in her classroom.
After she was done with the interview, DeLeston stopped to talk to Annor, who expects to land another principalship within the district. DeLeston talked about the teachers she had met and then wondered aloud whether her school could be the lucky beneficiary of some of 98th Street school’s more material castoffs.
Annor said he had been getting that question a lot recently from his fellow principals. What would happen to the library books, they ask. What about the office supplies, the chairs, the desks?
“They are picking me like a dead carcass,” Annor said. In fact, he said, the library books will go to four local elementary schools; the desks, chairs and other supplies will be redistributed by the district to schools that need them.
Eventually, once it has emptied 98th Street school of students, faculty and materials, L.A. Unified will negotiate to sell the school property, as yet another piece of the airport purchase deal. In the interim, the district may use the site for other uses. Perhaps it will become an adult school, or a training center, or even administrative offices.
For now, the school stands out in district lore as an anomaly. Some other school districts such as Goleta and Irvine are closing schools due to declining enrollment, and other school systems, like San Jose and Monterey, are closing campuses for budgetary reasons. But not L.A. Unified. The district has plans to build 160 schools by 2012 at a cost of $14 billion, and is making arrangements to reopen two school sites in the Valley.
Annor understands how unusual this end to his first principalship will be. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “We are building all these new schools but closing this one. I tell my friends, how many of you will ever close a school?”