New School in L.A. Is First in 35 Years

The first new high school for Los Angeles in more than three decades opened this week in South Los Angeles, though not without controversy over dangerous soil contaminants at the campus. The nation's second largest school district is finally launching a building boom after many embarrassing and expensive false starts.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A new public high school opens here in Los Angeles this week. It was the first to be built in more than 35 years. Many hope that campus is a new beginning for the nation's second-largest school district, where crowded classrooms and high dropout rates have become the norm. And as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, building new schools in LA has never been easy.

(Soundbite of people talking)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

Day one of a brand-new high school in one of South LA's toughest neighborhoods. The freshly painted walls are graffiti-free. The desks and lockers are mint condition. There's a new state-of-the-art kitchen for cooking classes and a spanking-new auditorium for a performing arts program. Seventeen-year-old Marcus Davis(ph) is excited to be here.

MARCUS DAVIS (Student): First day at my new school, South Central High there--yeah, it was cool; it was all great.

DEL BARCO: The school is so new, people can't even agree on what to call it: South Central High, South High or Santee High, after the old dairy that used to stand here. Whatever the name, the new school represents hope for Marcus Davis and other students who have been jammed in crowded classrooms for years.

DAVIS: Yeah, they built us a new school.

DEL BARCO: How does that feel?

DAVIS: It feels real good to know that somebody out there appreciate the young kids of LA.

DEL BARCO: Davis and many of the other students came here from nearby Jefferson High, which became notorious a few months ago because of several huge brawls between black and Latino students. Davis says he got caught up in the violence at Jefferson, but he's hoping for a new start. School officials say they're hoping to improve academic achievement and relieve the cramped classrooms by building or upgrading 160 elementary, middle and high schools over the next seven years.

Mr. ROY ROMER (Superintendent): Never in history have been this amount of school construction in one location at one time.

DEL BARCO: School superintendent Roy Romer says it's a tragedy that it took LA 35 years to build a new high school.

Mr. ROMER: We terribly neglected children. A hundred and eighty thousand seats short, and these kids were just crammed in--sardines. We had schools built for 1,600. We had 5,000 kids in them. And it has obviously resulted in a lot of tension, such as Jefferson High School.

DEL BARCO: There are many reasons it's taken LA so long to get started. Money and the political will to invest in new schools were only part of the challenge. Glen Gritzner is a superintendent special assistant.

Mr. GLEN GRITZNER (Superintendent Special Assistant): In the beginning, it was hard because a lot of people didn't want to do business with us. You know, the old LAUSD took six months to pay its bills, changed its mind all the time about what it needed, so the first thing we had to do was bring professionals into our facilities division.

DEL BARCO: Then the challenge was finding places to build. Gritzner says the district is using eminent domain laws to relocate some homeowners from their land, but some of these sites created more problems. A few years ago, the district spent nearly $200 million to build a new high school near downtown, only to discover that the campus would be on top of explosive pockets of methane gas and an earthquake fault line. It was an embarrassing and expensive setback, but it was also a valuable lesson for LA school officials. They vow not to repeat past mistakes with their current building projects.

Mr. GRITZNER: It's staggering that we're opening this many schools.

DEL BARCO: Glen Gritzner says the district is determined to make up for lost time, but he says it won't be easy.

Mr. GRITZNER: We have to find land in an area that's built out, so all the land is either occupied by people or businesses or it's got an old use that makes it environmentally questionable. You know, it's not like other more suburban or rural districts where you go pick the next strawberry field, buy it from the farmer, and put a school on it.

DEL BARCO: By the end of the year, LA will have 40 more new schools. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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