Appealing to the highest common denominator

Times Staff Writer

From Chatsworth to El Segundo, private schools are spending an estimated $600 million in a building boom that reflects the strong demand for their services and the intense competition among their ranks.

Brentwood School is building an aquatics center that looks like a modern equivalent of the Greco-Roman baths of ancient Alexandria. Windward School, also on the Westside, is completing a new library with digital media studios and an indoor-outdoor reading area with a fireplace. Loyola High School near downtown recently opened a new science hall equipped with the most advanced instruments, and, across the new commons, it is restoring its historic brick Jesuit residence hall.

The building frenzy is being driven by aging facilities, new teaching models that call for informal classroom settings, space for group projects and hands-on activities, and the need for new technology. It also is aimed, of course, at keeping these schools competitive.

There is an assumption that private schools -- where tuition can top $26,000 annually -- can provide the best of everything. School leaders say they increasingly are expected to meet students’ diverse needs, with more specialized staff, multiple counselors, psychologists, deans of students, and parent, alumni and community advisors who all need offices and meeting space.


“One of the factors at play is that the nature of education and learning is changing; expectations are shifting, with an impact on fiscal plans and technology,” said James McManus, executive director of the California Assn. of Independent Schools. “Students expect to walk into science labs and see computer hookups, and that means more space and different configurations of classrooms.”

Some educators, even those involved in new building projects, decry the “facilities race,” arguing that the millions going into these projects might be better spent on teacher salaries and financial aid. And the capital campaigns can be particularly daunting to parents already paying high tuitions and being tapped for annual fundraising as well. But schools say they are under pressure from parents, alumni, trustees and other forces.

In the competitive spirit

The building projects coincide with a massive public school construction program being undertaken by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is spending $12.4 billion to build 132 schools by 2013.

Few of the private schools -- Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth and New Roads in Santa Monica are exceptions -- are building new campuses from the ground up, but private educators are looking over their shoulders at the government funds pouring into public school improvements and the potential competition from public charter schools, which are attracting curious families who previously might have selected private education.

But independent schools are still sought after. The 150-student Buckley School, for example, is building new facilities at its Sherman Oaks campus to accommodate an additional 80 students, said communications director Kim Kerscher.

Unlike public schools, private school construction is mostly supported by donations from long-planned capital campaigns. An increasing number also are turning to bond financing, which -- tax-free and paid back over years -- allows schools to tap capital more quickly without waiting for fundraising pledges.

Private schools do not have to submit plans to the state Department of Education, which reviews the educational function of public buildings, or to the Division of the State Architect, which ensures that public schools comply with the Field Act -- governing such things as seismic standards -- and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But they still face obstacles: Private schools often are located in residential neighborhoods, must adhere to city building and safety codes, and are required to obtain land-use permits from local planning departments. Conditional-use permits are subject to public hearings and can include hundreds of conditions restricting building height, parking (some mandate busing of students to minimize traffic, for example), and weekend hours.


Evolving with education

Still, independent school educators say they end up with more creative and bold designs than public schools, and campuses that can match the amenities and look of a small college.

“We find we have a lot of freedom,” said architect Joseph Masotta of Parallax Associates, a Culver City firm that specializes in private school design.

Masotta said he and partner Craig Jameson purposely steer clear of the red tape of public projects. Parallax is designing Brentwood School’s aquatics center and a project at Berkeley Hall School on Mulholland Drive.


“People who come to us are always looking for something exceptional and surprising,” he said.

Architect Joe Pica of Pica + Sullivan, who is doing the $6-million Windward project, said that as classroom activities and the interests of students and educators evolve, so too do educational facilities, including such things as dance and broadcast studios and space for ceramics, woodworking, photography and computer animation. There also is an emphasis on environmentally friendly design.

“Everything comes in waves, and what’s hot depends on the needs of the school,” said Pica, who has projects in the construction or planning phases at 15 local private schools. “Science seems the biggest push right now, with the need to upgrade facilities. The way science is taught has changed, as has the classroom size, where you typically have 1,200-square-foot rooms.”

At Loyola High, junior Matt Reid resumed classes in September in a science lab transformed: rooms large enough to hold long, gleaming lab tables, powerful ventilation hoods that allow for more complex experiments and sophisticated equipment to fill the new cabinets. And because the teacher’s classes are now videotaped, students who miss a session can access it later online.


“It was a great room before, but this makes it easier to be safe and a lot easier to learn,” said Matt, 16, whose lab is part of the $30-million Hannon Science Hall and adjoining Ardolf Academic Hall.

With more space, Caltech has installed a seismograph measuring station at Loyola High.

“It’s more than bricks and mortar,” said science department chairman Craig Bouma. “We have a brand-new revamped curriculum and teaching plan, and that’s an enormous change for this century-old school.”

Gary and Julie Laughlin pledged $50,000 for new technology at Loyola in recognition of the advantages their oldest son received there; he graduated, and another son is a freshman.


“The benefits our kids got was because people years back funded the school, enabling it to provide the facilities, teachers and administration that we have; so part of what we want to do is give back and help where we can,” Gary Laughlin said.

A lure for faculty

At Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth, Head of School Jim Skrumbis said the new facility has made it easier to attract high-caliber faculty.

“It’s not so much just the new building, although they love that, but what they really like is coming into an environment and helping to create something,” Skrumbis said. “We’re not limited by tradition or a program that doesn’t allow for the kind of autonomy that you should have at an independent school. In some ways, our building is a metaphor for a new entrepreneurial status, along with competitive salaries.”


More frustrating for Skrumbis and other private administrators are the limits that can be imposed by neighborhood opposition. Sierra Canyon’s new high school, financed by bonds and scheduled for completion in March, will operate under a conditional-use permit that restricts the number of after-school events. The school also promised to open some facilities for community use and to develop nearby equestrian trails.

Some schools that do not have current building plans say they are well aware of those that do -- even as they remain wary of real estate and building costs.

“The fact that so many of our peer schools are doing major campus redevelopments has not been lost on us,” said Roger Weaver, head of Santa Monica’s Crossroads School, which is drawing up a master plan.

“For our clientele, our campus was never a selling point. People come because of our mission and values. . . . If I could wave a magic wand, I would absolutely love to give them the optimal teaching environment.”




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School growth

Some of the estimated $600 million in private-school construction projects:

Berkeley Hall School: arts and sciences building with Modernist stucco facade and expansive, blue-tinted windows; $5.4 million

Brentwood School: aquatics center on 1.6 acres with a 10-lane pool and changing rooms; $6.2 million


Buckley School: classrooms, athletic facilities and underground parking; $70 million

Harvard-Westlake School: post-Mission-style classrooms, auditorium, library, athletic fields and administrative offices at the Holmby Hills campus; $125 million

Marlborough School: academic and visual arts centers, underground parking, new courtyards and a cafe; $57 million

Sierra Canyon School: high school campus with classrooms, gym, performing arts center and new athletic fields on an adjacent site; $48 million


Source: Times reporting