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Resurrection of a Campus : Renewed Lennox School Rises Again to Educate a Younger Generation

September 13, 1987|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

Three years ago a deteriorating high school, battered by noise from jetliners and with fewer than 100 students still attending classes, closed in Lennox amid tears and controversy.

A federal court, overriding emotional opposition from community activists, had ordered the mostly Latino campus to shut down and never again open as a comprehensive high school. Such a school, declared U. S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter, would inevitably become segregated again.

Besides, he ruled in one of California's last major school desegregation lawsuits, Lennox High School was too oppressed with noise and urban blight to be suitable for educating children.

Now a new school has opened on the same campus, and some things are the same as before. The student population is still mostly Latino. A steady stream of jetliners still roar overhead on the way to nearby Los Angeles International Airport. The surrounding community is still blighted.

Students Are Younger

But there are some differences. The students are younger--sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. When they get inside a building, they aren't bothered by the jets--thanks to extensive soundproofing and the removal of all windows. And the once-decrepit campus has been transformed into what teachers and students say is the most beautiful school for miles around.

"It really is beautiful," said Jimmy de la Torre, a seventh-grader at the new Lennox Middle School. "I feel lucky to be able to go to school here." He showed a visitor a Lennox High School yearbook that belonged to his older brother, Juvenal, a 1984 graduate and the "last Prom King" at the old school.

"Everybody is proud of what we have here," said Vice Principal Pam Rector. "The kids are excited and motivated, the staff loves the extra space and the beautiful environment and the community is overjoyed at getting its school back."

In a tour of the grounds, she showed off remodeled classrooms, new science labs, computer-training rooms, a band room, a gym--and even a special mirrored room for dance classes.

The middle school, which joins five elementary schools in the 5,000-student Lennox School District, opened in mid-August with a near-capacity enrollment of 1,500. Jane St. John, the district's director of instruction, said almost 99% of the students are from minority groups, with Latinos making up 86% of the total. Last week, teachers, students, administrators and board members showed off their new school at an open house. The campus was dedicated to the late Eunice Strange, a former district employee who served on the school board until her death last year.

Visit by Former Superintendent

Among visitors at the open house was former Supt. Ken Moffett, who made the acquisition of the high school the centerpiece of a decade-long effort to transform the town's elementary system into one of the state's model districts. He left Lennox in 1986 to become superintendent of the ABC Unified School District based in Cerritos.

The 30-acre Lennox campus was purchased for $8.2 million from the Centinela Valley Union High School District a year after it was closed. Lennox high school students now attend two remaining schools in that district, Hawthorne and Leuzinger.

Funds for the purchase were provided by the state, which put up another $2.8 million to soundproof and remodel the buildings and generally spruce up the campus.

In contrast to many other systems in the South Bay, enrollment in the Lennox system has grown rapidly as a result of a continuing influx of immigrants into the 1.5-square-mile community. To make room for the newcomers, in the early part of the decade the district switched to a year-round program with groups of students vacationing at different times.

With the addition of the new campus, the district has abandoned that system and now all of its students go to school at the same time. But the year-round vacation schedule was retained after a poll showed that teachers and parents preferred to spread the school recesses over the year. The longest break is six weeks in the summer.

Lennox, an unincorporated county area, has no municipal government, and so the schools have always served as social and recreational centers for the community, said Supt. Charles Shields. He said the revived campus will carry on that tradition by keeping its grounds open to people who want to come in for picnics and sports activities.

Sheila Stachowiak, a Lennox parent who led the opposition to closing the high school, said she has put the battles of the past behind her and welcomes the reopening of the campus as a middle school.

"But I'll never understand why that school is OK for younger kids when it was not considered suitable for teen-agers," she said. "And now it is more racially isolated than ever."

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