Three new high schools opened Tuesday in the San Fernando Valley, the Valley's first new comprehensive high schools in 35 years. The campuses will provide nearly 7,000 new classroom seats, a key step toward returning all Valley high schools to a traditional two-semester calendar by 2012.
The schools had complicated histories, underscoring the difficulties of constructing schools in a built-out urban setting. For two of the campuses, Los Angeles Unified School District officials had to fend off commercial developers. The third involved a tricky land swap with the California Department of Transportation.
The day was especially rewarding for school board member Julie Korenstein, first elected in 1987, during an era that saw no new high schools, few new schools of any kind and rapidly increasing overcrowding.
"Kids were on buses two to three hours a day their whole school career," she said, recounting an experience common until recently.
The first stop on a bus tour of new campuses was Arleta High, a $66-million project on a 12.6-acre site that formerly held a Gemco department store and a gas station. The school system had to battle Gigante USA for the property, and many community members sided with the grocer. Korenstein recalls organizing students and parents to attend board meetings so their numbers would match the opponents'.
But that strife was forgotten as Korenstein, other local elected officials and community leaders stood among red, white and black balloons representing the school colors.
"All of us from the community are grateful for this school," said Al Piantanida, the retired general manager of an auto parts outfit. "We are going to bleed red and black."
Piantanida, president of the Arleta Neighborhood Council, bragged about how the principal claimed the football that scored the school's first touchdown. "That's the spirit and love you got to have."
The school itself is a model in space management. Its structures are laid out along two sides of the property and parking is tucked underground, leaving an open interior for a central courtyard and athletic fields. About 1,000 ninth- and 10th-graders are on premises, but the school will grow to house 2,175, relieving Monroe, Polytechnic and San Fernando high schools.
District officials are at pains to show they have learned from a disastrous opening of a South Los Angeles high school last year. Starting smaller, with younger students, is something the district learned from the opening of the campus at the site of the former Santee dairy.
"We had a construction schedule that was so tight, teachers walked in the first day and it was, 'Here's your keys; here's your classroom; here's your kids,' " said James Morris, who, last year, was chief of staff for L.A. schools Supt. Roy Romer. "And when you're starting all four grades, with the school at full capacity, it's hard to build school culture."
Just 48 hours before the school opened, the district had informed Santee administrators of a "processing delay" that forced the school to open with nearly 40 substitutes, recalled former Assistant Principal Tom Nichols, who now heads a charter school. And the entire staff had but one day of training together, he added.
Test scores at Santee trailed all other district high schools despite the shining new campus.
This year, Morris is local superintendent for the region that includes two of the new high schools. "At these schools, we've learned," he said. The schools made sure to handle student registration and orientation ahead of time, including taking yearbook pictures.
Not that everything was ready long in advance. At two campuses, hard hats were tossed aside only last Friday. But teachers were on campus days ahead of their students and had already received tours, orientation and professional development sessions.
The next stop was Panorama High School in Panorama City. As the bus passed the intersection of Roscoe and Van Nuys boulevards, Korenstein noted that she'd once wanted that corner for the campus, but community members objected, saying they preferred commercial development there.
"Help me find other sites," she told them. They did.
The alternative turned out to be the site of an old Carnation dairy. But a developer moved in faster than the district.
"It was my fault, Julie," state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) confessed to those assembled. "I was the one who asked the Selleck family to look at the Carnation site." At the time, Alarcon explained, "this was a gang-infested, drug-dealing neighborhood within one block of this site."
"Again, there was a battle," said Korenstein. "I shouldn't say battle: It was the need for warehouses versus the need for a school."
The Selleck family members, relatives of actor Tom Selleck, agreed to sell.
Panorama High, on an 18.2-acre site, cost $106 million. By building classrooms in four-story structures, the school will have room for 2,800 students while still devoting more than half the site to athletic facilities, including two gyms, a football field with lights and bleachers, a pool and tennis courts.
The view from the street shows off a hatchet-shaped red obelisk that is actually shielding a stairwell. Behind it lies a central concourse lined with palm trees.
Community activist Tony Wilkinson lauded the school as a vitally needed community center and a symbol of a neighborhood on the rise: "Having that name on the school was a big thing to us."
There's no permanent name yet for what's called East Valley High School, on Vineland Avenue in North Hollywood. Even though it's the same size as Arleta High, it will cost $40 million more, because the district must relocate a Caltrans maintenance site. That $40 million is itself inflated because the work is only now underway and construction costs have nearly doubled since 2002.
Still to be finished are a pool and athletic fields. For exercise, students "will do a lot of stair running," joked Principal Marcy Hamm, gesturing toward the four-story stairwell.
For ninth-grader Ivan Madrid, 14, who previously attended a Catholic school, it's so far so good: "This is my first time in a public school, and everything is new and I'm making a lot of new friends. It's an opportunity for me."