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Calexico schools struggle to recover from quake

The Calexico High School Bulldogs track team is preparing to defend its league championship at the biggest meet of the season Thursday.

But the meet, scheduled for Calexico, has been moved to El Centro. And the Bulldogs cannot practice on their own turf.

The school’s athletic field has been declared unsafe because light poles were loosened and bent by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck on Easter Sunday. Schools Supt. Christina Luna is worried that another temblor could send the poles and lights crashing down, killing or severely injuring someone.

Every school in the Calexico Unified School District was closed after the April 4 shaker, which was centered across the border, about 20 miles south of Calexico’s “twin city” of Mexicali. In the weeks since the quake, aftershocks have added to the destruction.

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All 13 campuses in the 9,500-student district remain closed because of the damage: asbestos from walkway coverings that collapsed or cracked, mercury from light fixtures that crashed to the floor, exposed electrical wires, broken water and gas lines, classroom ceilings and roofs that split, and air-conditioning systems that ruptured.

It will be another week or longer before any of the schools can reopen. Teachers and central office employees are scrambling to find ways to keep students from falling behind in their studies.

Damage has been estimated at $10 million to $15 million — in a district with a $75-million annual budget.

“This is a district that already has a lot of challenges,” said Luna, who is in her first year as superintendent. “But this has been really difficult for us.”

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Among the challenges is a high percentage of students with limited English proficiency. Absenteeism is such a problem that Dist. Atty. Gilbert Otero sent notices to parents before the quake struck summoning them to a meeting.

The unemployment rate and mortgage foreclosure rate in Imperial County are among the highest in the nation. The national recession forced the school board to cut $4.5 million from the budget; an additional $3 million might be cut.

The state and federal governments may pay up to 94% of the cost of repairing the schools. But with their help comes time-consuming rules about evaluating damage and finding contractors — all of which has slowed progress toward reopening the schools.

“It’s OK for me, I don’t work outside the house,” said Maria Marcus, whose 9-year-old daughter, Darianna, is in third grade. “But a lot of parents work and they don’t have anyone to watch their kids since they’re not in school.”

Missing several weeks of instruction could make much of the school a year an educational loss for students. One teacher said that when students return each fall, it can take six weeks to get them back to the proficiency they had in June.

A calculus teacher is holding sessions at the city library. So is a tutor for adults from the continuation school program. The Calexico High principal has called a meeting of parents whose children want to take the Advanced Placement tests needed for college credits.

Track coach Cal Armstrong has scheduled practices at a city park even though the lawn is bumpy and there is no way to simulate the relay races or hurdles that are a Calexico High specialty.

Because school is not in session, the practices, in theory, are voluntary. But Armstrong, a teacher and coach for 37 years, has an iron rule: miss two practices and you’re out of a meet.

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“This is hurting the program; the athletes are not getting the quality of practice they need,” Armstrong said.

Relay runner Daniel Garcia, 16, said the earthquake experience in Calexico has been “really weird. You wake up, you go to practice, and then you have nothing to do all day.”

Denise Saldana, 17, said practicing at Daniel V. Gutierrez Park is just not the same as the school track. “It’s so bumpy and it’s hard to run on, and you can’t really practice passing the baton,” she said.

Teachers are trying to make sure track team members have something to do besides practice.

On Wednesday, lesson packets tailored to grade levels were distributed to hundreds of parents at the parish hall of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. There is also a website where Calexico High students can check for assignments.

That’s where Steven Herrera, 16, learned he had been assigned a report on a prominent American. He picked Muhammad Ali.

Sondra Martinez, a sixth-grade teacher at Dool Elementary School, has telephoned each of her 33 students at home to give them assignments. She’s concerned she has not been able to reach 11 of them.

“This is very disruptive,” Martinez said. “The students are missing three to four weeks of instruction just when they need to get ready for state tests.”

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Nearly 90% of the district’s students qualify for the breakfast and lunch program underwritten by the federal government for students from low-income families. Unable to use school cafeterias, the district has set up two alternative sites so students will not go hungry.

Luna hopes to get a waiver from state officials so that the school year can still end on June 8 as scheduled. Having the schools vacant will make it easier to complete the repairs, she said.

Just when the district thinks it has a handle on the problem, another temblor strikes. An aftershock Tuesday morning broke a water line at Jefferson Elementary School, which is already so severely damaged that it will not reopen and its 800-plus students are being transferred.

Raul Martinez, who is in charge of maintenance and operation facilities for the district, said it has been difficult to keep an updated tally of the damage. Inspectors from the California Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are searching for hazardous materials.

“It’s a moving target,” Martinez said. “It’s very frustrating.”

tony.perry@latimes.com


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