Saturday, February 5, 2011
The upcoming issue of the Arroyo Seco Journal will feature Northeast L.A.’s new high school, Central High School 13, (aka Taylor Yards High), nearing completion just off of San Fernando Road. Our coverage looks at how the school will be a laboratory for innovation in education. Just to bring you up to speed, here's the back story—Arroyo Seco Journal articles from 2007 and 2008 detailing how the new school came into being.
Several years ago, Glassell Park resident Alisa Smith attended a meeting about a Caltrans maintenance facility proposed for the north end of the former Taylor Yard railroad site off of San Fernando Road. Caltrans needed to relocate the facility from North Hollywood because that site was needed for a school.
Didn’t Northeast Los Angeles need a school too, Smith wondered? Why was North Hollywood getting a school while NELA was getting a truck yard?
Jump ahead to November 19 of this year. Smith was sitting in a courtroom as a judge awarded that same parcel of land—Taylor Yard Parcel F—to the Los Angeles Unified School District. It is to become LAUSD Central Region High School #13.
The court decision represented a hard-fought victory for education activists from communities across the Northeast. The struggle involved a close brush with success in 2005, only to see the property snatched away by a developer, followed by some serious contamination of the land with arsenic, lead and volatile chemicals under mysterious circumstances.
The need for another NELA high school has been apparent for decades, as secondary students from Glassell Park and Cypress Park have had to walk or take the bus to Eagle Rock, Franklin, Marshall and Lincoln. Those schools have long been overcrowded, resulting in year-round scheduling with shortened school years and portable classrooms.
The Taylor Yard site was a rare find on the urban landscape. A school could be built there without necessitating the displacement of any homes or businesses. It was set back from a major transportation corridor. A large park was going in just down the block. A community college satellite campus was slated for just up the street. And property owner Legacy Partners of Texas wanted to sell.
Still, a full high school may have looked like too much to hope for. LAUSD was simply not in building mode and hadn’t been for generations.
Then-Glassell Park Neighborhood Council Chair Helene Schpak brought together representatives of LAUSD, the Construction Bond Oversight Committee, City Council offices, the Neighborhood Council and property owner Legacy Partners.
“The purpose of the meeting was to introduce ourselves to each other and begin the process of discussing the viability/possibility of a school being built on Parcel F,” says Schpak. “It was agreed that the conversation would continue.”
At that point, Caltrans pulled out of its quest for the property.
A lot had changed in 2004. A voter-mandated move away from school overcrowding meant dollars for construction. Local activists pointed LAUSD in the right direction, and the district was on the verge of an agreement for the purchase of Taylor Yard Parcel F. The district began an environmental assessment. The School Board took its sweet time with the politics of approval, but HS13 looked like a done deal.
But a shocker of a plot development was in the works. In 2005, the development firm of Meruelo Maddox swooped in and offered Legacy Partners more money than the fair market value the school district could spend by law. The District is said to have offered $29.4 million. Meruelo Maddox offered $30 million.
Meruelo Maddox holds the largest property portfolio in Downtown Los Angeles and has extensive holdings in areas surrounding Downtown. CEO Richard Meruelo was the largest individual donor to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s election campaign.
Meruelo Maddox dubbed the property “Riveredge Village.” A description of the development firm’s plan for Glassell Park is on the company’s web site:
A mixed use community is being planned to offer attractive housing, local-serving retail and inviting public spaces that bridge Glassell Park and a projected revitalized L.A. River. Projected for the 23 acre plus parcel are 1,000 to 1,200 units of varied housing types, and 120,000 SF of commercial uses, a variety of active and passive open spaces, and links to proposed mass transit system. It has been recommended that a high school planned for the site be relocated on an adjacent central parcel bordering the Rio de Los Angeles State Park to encourage joint use.
The “adjacent central parcel” referred to is the current Fed Ex site, which Meruelo Maddox only recently acquired. The Fed Ex property is less than half the size of the site Meruelo bought out from under the school district. Rather than having their own athletic and recreation spaces, the high school students would be expected to use the new park, a use for which community activists say the park was not designed. Further, the smaller parcel is the subject of a legal dispute totally separate from the LAUSD case.
Rethinking the plan for the school, which was designed specifically for the Parcel F site, could mean a delay of five years.
The school district was having none of it. The board went after the larger parcel by means of eminent domain, Meruelo Maddox took the matter to court, negotiations failed—and hence, the November 19 court date.
The court appearance resulted in a victory for LAUSD and local school advocates. But there are still huge issues to be worked out.
First up is the fact that the temporary owner apparently trashed the place.
In 2006, the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council and the Glassell Park Improvement Association began receiving inquiries as to why there were trucks pulling into the property. A strip of land was covered in asphalt, and Glendale Kia began storing cars there. The neighborhood council board wrote to officials at various levels of government expressing the concern that a large pile of dirt had appeared at the site, and no one knew what was in it. No one could find any permits.
Activists didn’t know what was being imported—but they had their suspicions.
In April of this year, the Los Angeles City Attorney announced that his office had filed multiple criminal charges against Meruelo Maddux Properties for the improper removal and disposal of asbestos-tainted materials at a demolished industrial complex on the edge of Downtown. The complaint alleged 16 criminal counts, including illegal disposal of hazardous waste and improper handling and disposal of asbestos removal. The company was unable to document proper asbestos removal procedures or provide waste shipment records for hazardous materials removed from the site.
In October, LAUSD received the results of its newest environmental study. Despite substantial clean-ups of the former rail yard in the l990s, there are now 37 sites on the property contaminated with arsenic, lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and/or pesticides. The infill contains building debris. Clean-up will involve trucking out 7,000 cubic yards of soil and the total clean-up cost will be about $4 million.
Javier Hinojosa of the Department of Toxic Substances Control told a November 8 community meeting on a remedial action plan that “undocumented” soil represents a huge portion of the contamination. Tom Watson of the LAUSD Office of Environmental Health and Safety, when asked about the “undocumented” fill said, “We believe it was brought in by Meruelo Maddox.”
In January, the court will address the issue of hazardous clean-up and who’s going to pay. In April, the court will assess whether and how the change of ownership impacts Glendale Kia (although its lease on the property ends in January).
On May 5, a valuation trial will take place. Attorneys cannot discuss figures being put forth in chambers, but one participant did divulge that Meruelo Maddox is asking for approx 75% more than LAUSD’s valuing of the property.
But despite pending issues, education activists from Glassell Park, Cypress Park, Mount Washington, Atwater Village and other NELA communities are in fact getting the school they have been fighting for.
The school has been designed to accommodate almost 2,300 students. They will, however, be divided among five “small learning communities,” each with its own building and its own specific area of academic focus. Students will therefore have the advantages of personalized attention and of shared athletic, arts and library facilities. It is expected that programming will make strong use of the revitalization effort at the nearby L.A. River.
Roberta Trotman of the Greater Cypress Park Neighborhood Council points out that Marshall has 4,500 students, while each learning community at HS13 will have 460 students with their own administrator. The official district drop-out rate is 15%, although Trotman says the number of students who start 9th grade but never graduate from high school is substantially higher.
“Kids drop out of school because they’re bored,” says Jackie Goldberg, the area’s former School Board Rep, City Council Member and State Assembly Member.
“We need this size school,” says Trotman, “and a development like Meruelo’s just exacerbates the problem.”
If all goes well, current fifth graders may be the first students of High School 13.
“What a glorious day!” proclaimed former State Assembly, City Council and School Board Member Jackie Goldberg as residents of Northeast Los Angeles gathered to break ground on the construction of Central Region High School #13. Among those in attendance at the June 11 celebration were community activists and elected officials who labored for years to make the much-needed new high school a reality.
The new school will be located at the former Taylor Yard rail yard, near San Fernando Road and Division Street in Glassell Park. Students from that area for generations have had to walk or take public transportation to Marshall, Franklin and Eagle Rock High Schools. The Taylor Yard school will go a long way toward relieving serious overcrowding at those schools.
According to Board of Education Member Yolie Flores Aguilar, the new construction will mean a traditional two-semester calendar for all Northeast high schools, with more time for learning. The new school may also serve as a recreation area and adult learning center for the community.
The impetus for the school clearly came from the community. Local residents envisioned it before the School District embarked on its current ambitious building plan. They chose a site where some in power had proposed warehouses, and they convinced their elected representatives to come on board. At the groundbreaking, Goldberg thanked “those who stood up when it wasn’t popular” and who brought about “a place where our children will grow and thrive.”
Central Region High School #13 will serve 2,295 students who will be divided among five small learning communities (SLCs), each with its own classrooms, teachers and administration. It is hoped that the personalized attention students will receive as part of the SLC structure will go a long way toward encouraging students to complete their high school educations. Northeast Los Angeles currently is plagued by a very high drop out rate. District wide, only about 50% of all students complete grades nine through 12 in four years. In Cypress Park, education activists estimate that the graduation rate may be as low as 25%.
At the groundbreaking, Local District Superintendent Richard Alonzo pointed out the many links between the new campus and historic sites, including the Los Angeles River, the Van de Kamps Bakery and the Portola Trail. According to Alonzo, the District is already looking beyond construction to educational partnerships. Students may have opportunities for internships with the many agencies involved in the river revitalization effort. They will also be able to take classes at the new community college under construction up the street at the Van de Kamps site.
Parent activist and LAUSD School Construction Bond Citizens’ Oversight Committee Member Scott Folsom took advantage of the opportunity to encourage everyone to “pick up pen, pencil or crayon” and oppose the Governor’s proposed draconian cuts in education funding.
“We must send the message that our children are not responsible for the budget crisis and must not pay for it,” said Folsom. [The construction] will end bussing and year-round, but we didn’t enact the [construction] bond to have larger classes and no books.”
There are other financial issues relating to the school that remain to be resolved. When former Board of Education Member David Tokofsky got up to speak and receive an award for his service to children, he thanked the lawyers who made the day possible. In 2005, the development firm of Meruelo Maddux swooped in and purchased the Taylor Yard property after LAUSD had already spent considerable money on environmental assessment and just as the District thought it was about to ink a deal for the land. Meruelo Maddux offered then owner Legacy Partners just a bit more than the District was offering, making it clear that an insider had leaked confidential information. The source of that leak has never been found. The District eventually took control of the property through the process of eminent domain. But the delay during a time of rising construction costs coupled with the need to redo environmental work mean that taxpayers will ultimately pay millions more for Central Region High School 13 than originally anticipated.
Meruelo Maddux and LAUSD are still in court over how much money the developer should be compensated for the property and who will pay for the clean-up of pollution of the site that occurred while Meruelo Maddux controlled it.
But despite the fact that controversies regarding the site have not ended, June 11 was a day of celebration. Construction equipment was already in evidence at Taylor Yard as groundbreaking participants turned gold shovels of earth—proof that the vision that had once, to some, seemed far-fetched had become a reality.
Central Region High School #13 is one of 132 new schools planned or recently opened in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The school’s first students are expected to be on campus in the Fall of 2011.
Local schools will soon be much smaller, due to a measure authored by local School Board Member Yolie Flores Aguilar and co-sponsored by Board President Mónica García.
The measure is designed to deal with the fact that 86% of Los Angeles Unified School District high schools, 96% of middle schools and 51% of elementary schools have populations exceeding state averages. The largest LAUSD schools are not spread evenly across the City, but are characteristic of certain districts, including the east-side districts represented by Flores Aguilar and Garcia.
According to Flores Aguilar, research has identified many benefits to small schools including improved academic performance, higher graduation and college-going rates, safer campuses, increased parental and community involvement and greater teacher satisfaction and retention.
The advantages probably boil down to the fact that students on small campuses get more personalized attention. Teachers and administrators have a better sense of where students are and what is happening with them academically and personally. The students in turn feel the fact that someone is noticing and caring.
“Size leverages possibilities,” says Flores Aguilar.
Newly constructed schools will now be limited to 500 students each (400 for middle schools). Small schools may share sites, with limits of two elementary schools and four middle or high schools per site with possible shared facilities such as gyms. Each small campus will have its own administration, staff, budget, contiguous space and responsibility for all aspects of its educational program.
By 2020, all existing campuses of 1,000 or more students, except those that specifically opt out, will be transformed into small schools.
Many parents have expressed strong support for the concept of small schools, with some willing to sit through many hours of Board of Education meetings to express their support. There has been some concern expressed at community meetings that reducing campus size is insufficient in light of large class size and lack of educational materials. However, Flores Aguilar is clear that the small schools movement is not to be seen as a panacea.
“It’s a steep climb still,” says Flores Aguilar of school reform, “but I feel we’re at least on the trajectory.”
“This is historic and revolutionary,” said Garcia as the Board of Education voted 6-1 to move forward with the small schools proposal.
In December, School Superintendent David Brewer will present the Board of Education with an analysis of options for implementation including cost analysis and specific funding resources. Implementation will happen in phases with evaluation built into the process.
Middle Schools will be a high priority for phase one. Parents at Thomas Starr King Middle School have already begun researching options for restructuring, and there is strong interest at Luther Burbank.