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Locker Shocker : Growing Number of Schools Eliminate the Metal Boxes

December 06, 1989|ROXANA KOPETMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They're a rite of passage, a symbol of adolescence. But school lockers are now becoming history in a small but slowly growing number of Southern California schools.

Three Long Beach middle schools are the latest to lock lockers for good and force students to, ever so grudgingly, schlep their books to and from home.

"It's too hard to carry all your books. Let me show you my history book," said Jefferson Middle School student Jason Knowles, displaying a thick text. "Now, picture eight of these," continued the eighth-grader, whose 75-pound frame carries a heavy backpack daily.

What's a school without lockers?

To administrators and teachers, it's a quieter, safer, less troublesome place. Kids get to class on time because they're not schmoozing by their lockers. Hallways are no longer filled with the loud chorus of clanging metal doors. School staff is freed from having to fix the lockers. And for some students, there is one less place to stash drugs or weapons.

"It's called locker problems," said Diana Pichierri, principal of Desert Springs Middle School, a new school in the Palm Springs Unified School District that was built without lockers. "The lock is jammed, or somebody vandalized it, or nasty things are written on them, or

bination-to-my-best-friend-and-I-hate-her-today-and-look-what-she's-done.' I can guarantee (getting rid of them) saves some gray hair."

But to most teen-agers, a school without lockers is like a school without pep rallies. On a practical level, carrying a backpack filled with textbooks, note pads, gym clothes and other equipment is, well, heavy. And besides, lockers signified a kid's arrival in the big leagues.

"I thought I would feel more grown up, older," said Dustin York, one of the many disappointed newcomers to Jefferson Middle School looking forward to getting a first locker. "But this is like an elementary school."

Principals at Jefferson, Franklin and Lindbergh middle schools in the Long Beach Unified School District, on the other hand, have nothing but kudos for the experiment, which may expand to the other 11 middle schools in the district but has not yet been considered for the high schools. In other districts, the concept has already taken hold in both junior and senior high schools from Pasadena to San Bernardino to San Diego County.

"My hallways are cleaner. My custodian has time to do custodial things. My kids have (more) time in the classroom. It's been a positive thing," said Linda Moore, principal at Franklin Middle School.

At the Pasadena Unified School District, most students don't have lockers in either middle schools or senior high schools, said Michael Klentschy, assistant superintendent for instruction. As in the other districts, Pasadena school officials assign lockers to students with special problems, such as medical conditions.

In the San Bernardino City Unified School District, lockers in both middle schools and high schools were removed in recent years to cut down on maintenance costs, said Harold Boring, the district superintendent for administrative services. It saves the district about $200,000 a year, he said.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, South Gate Junior High School is exploring the idea, according to Verna Stroud, the school improvements coordinator. Elsewhere in the district, however, workers are fixing broken lockers. Last year, the Los Angeles school board allocated $400,000 to repair lockers, said Julie Crum, the district's assistant maintenance director.

While the advantages are many in getting rid of lockers--or shutting them off by placing long metal bars through them, as officials did in the three Long Beach middle schools--the main drawback is that children sometimes must carry heavy book packs.

To check just how much they were carrying, San Bernardino school officials gathered the textbooks and weighed them. The average load was about 12 pounds, unless students were carrying all of their books with them, which raised the weight to 26 or 27 pounds, according to Boring.

Khalilah Slaughter and Anitrica Howze are cousins, petite 11-year-olds who share the same classes at Jefferson Middle School. They place all their books in one large gym bag, which they take turns carrying. They complained of a need for personal storage space beyond their physical education lockers, which are small and out of the way.

Many of the students say their biggest beef is that it is burdensome to lug their texts from home to school and back each day.

The benefits, however, have paid off, said Principal Candace Toft of La Mesa Middle School in San Diego County. "We just don't find the things that we used to. We're not finding the drugs and the weapons," she said.

Myrna Fujimoto, the principal at Jefferson Middle School, said one gun was found hidden in a locker last year. "That was enough to convince me," she said.

Overall, however, principals at the three Long Beach schools say drugs and weapons have not been a serious problem at their campuses.

And while youngsters such as Jefferson seventh-grader Jairo Olivos will clamor for lockers ardently--"We want our rights! We want lockers!"--officials say the metal boxes are neither a right nor, some argue, a venerable teen-age tradition.

"Traditions change daily," Pichierri said. "I would rather think of it as a fad that has lost its excitement."

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