Los Angeles technical high school is all it should be, but will soon be history
It’s located in a grimy and windowless building that it shares with an adult school on the edge of downtown. But to its students and teachers, the Santee Construction Academy is something of an educational utopia.
There are small classes with attentive teachers. A curriculum designed to prepare students for the real world with training for in-demand jobs. An atmosphere that students say is akin to a family.
The campus fits the bill of what some educators and others describe as a model with its career training and staff commitment. Yet, in about two weeks, this program will be history.
It turns out that the same factors that have made the academy successful — despite lukewarm test scores — also made it vulnerable to the sweeping cuts Los Angeles public schools are being forced to make with a tightening budget. The program costs more than $1.5 million to operate.
“The reality is, it’s going to cost a good chunk of dollars to keep us open,” said Richard Chavez, principal of Santee Education Complex, one of the L.A. Unified campuses operated by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. “The economy keeps trying to push us back. The idea of ‘smaller is better’ is sometimes true, but it doesn’t always work.”
“Is it a disappointment?” he said, “Heck, yeah. When we look at the economic realities of it all, it’s painful.”
Santee, like schools districtwide, is grappling with continued budget cuts at the same time that enrollment decreases. With a new high school opening near Santee in the fall, the school’s enrollment will continue to plummet, falling from 2,900 to 2,300.
Officials with the mayor’s partnership say it has become more difficult to justify the costs of the academy, which requires such things as a clerical worker ($65,000 a year) and parking ($20,000 a year) for a program with fewer than 300 students.
The only remedy, administrators said, is to move the students from the construction academy, located at the Abram Friedman Occupational Center, to the main campus a few blocks away.
Students will then be in classes of about 35 students instead of 15, and each counselor has a load of more than 700.
But several students have vowed not to go quietly. They are calling on administrators and the media to help keep the school alive.
“You actually know everyone and you’re comfortable here,” said Carina Banuelos, a graduating senior. “It’s like a second home.”
It wasn’t always that way, students said. In fact, the school took some getting used to.
On a recent school day, Manuel Contreras hustled down a stairwell, briskly maneuvering his way through a pack of men probably twice his age and a woman towing a toddler.
“Like everyone else, at first I didn’t like it,” the ninth-grader said. “I thought it was like a prison.”
Now, Contreras and others said, they can’t imagine leaving.
The construction academy opened in 2006 as the brainchild of William Hernandez, an assistant principal who oversees the school. The school has a curriculum that merges the standard high school requirements with hands-on classes in such areas as construction, electronics, cosmetology and pharmacy technician training.
“We have some great kids who have found their path by coming here,” said Hernandez, who is retiring from the district at the end of the school year.
The small school environment hasn’t led to better test scores. According to data from the partnership, construction academy students had a lower passing rate on the state high school exit exam in math than students at the main campus. The construction students fared the same as Santee students on standardized math and English tests, the data show.
The electronics and digital classes will probably be transferred to the main campus in the fall, joining other career-oriented courses offered at Santee such as culinary arts. The others, particularly those requiring large and expensive equipment, will not make the move.
Teachers say they can offer more one-on-one instruction and that they keep tabs on their students throughout their high-school years.
“I’ve watched them grow. I’ve watched them mature into young men and women,” said Marsha Watson, an English teacher who will be displaced. “Because of the size of the school, you can come to care about the students very much. That’s pretty special for a teacher.”
Students say teachers take time to answer their questions, and offer extra credit. Administrators know their names. They say their school has a more laid-back feel, there are no fights and few, if any, bullies.
A few blocks away, there will certainly be more structure. On a recent school day, the halls were clean and clear of stragglers, and students stick to a strict schedule.
The students are apprehensive about making the move and upset about what they will leave behind.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Andrew Araujo, a sophomore. “Where does that leave us? We’re forced to go to the main campus.”
Get The Wild newsletter.
The essential weekly guide to enjoying the outdoors in Southern California. Insider tips on the best of our beaches, trails, parks, deserts, forests and mountains.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.