CUDAHY — The return of students to Park Avenue Elementary School, 15 months after its petroleum-contaminated playground forced district officials to shut it down, is a welcome relief to more than just the students and staff of the school.
The school's reopening this week also clears the way for school administrators to begin work on a new junior high school in the area.
Park Avenue's 1,100 students had been bused to three schools, including Elizabeth Street Elementary, which occupies the future site of the junior high school.
No sooner had Park Avenue students moved out of their temporary classrooms at Elizabeth Street school than Los Angeles Unified School District planners and their supervisors descended on the 80-year-old school to review plans to build a 20-acre junior high school on the site.
School officials have been itching to begin the conversion, which will give Region B of the Los Angeles Unified School District a desperately needed junior high. Junior high students now attend three overcrowded schools in the region--one in South Gate and two in Huntington Park. Officials plan to begin busing students from the schools to help ease overcrowding until the Elizabeth Street junior high is completed, said Gordon Wohlers, administrator of the district's priority housing program, which finds housing for students.
The new Elizabeth Street junior high will house about 1,600 students, he said.
"Our junior high schools are just bursting at the seams," Elizabeth Street Principal John Kershaw said.
Kershaw said the Elizabeth Street conversion has been in the works for about three years. Construction had been scheduled to begin about six months ago, but there was no way to begin with the Park Avenue students on campus.
The conversion will take years, he said, with students moving from one area of the campus to another as work progresses. Kershaw said the portable classrooms once occupied by the Park Avenue students will be moved so that the first phase of construction on the junior high can proceed.
Kershaw said a science building will be built on the former site of the portable classes. Eventually the campus may include a swimming pool and a library that will be shared with Cudahy residents.
Park Avenue reopened Monday after the entire playground was capped to prevent petroleum from rising to the surface. The project cost $2 million.
Extensive environmental testing after the school was shut down showed that the tarry sludge found on the playground was a complex mixture of petroleum waste that was not harmful to the children unless they had repeated, prolonged and direct contact with it. Studies also showed that no toxic fumes were being emitted by the substance.
During the 15 months the school was closed, Park Avenue students were divided among Teresa Hughes Elementary School, Elizabeth Street school and Clara Street Primary Center.
For 15 months, administration officials at Teresa Hughes and Elizabeth Street ran two schools in one--with separate recesses, lunch breaks, even separate use of facilities for their students and Park Avenue students.
Though the reopening of the school paves the way for the Elizabeth Street conversion, it has done nothing to alleviate general overcrowding in the region, Wohlers said.
Wohlers said the Southeast Los Angeles County's elementary population is among the fastest growing in the district. Today, a third of the elementary schools in Bell, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Maywood and South Gate are at capacity and are busing students.
Elizabeth Street elementary students will eventually be moved to a new school being planned in Cudahy at the corner of Wilcox Avenue and Walnut Street, school Principal Kershaw said.