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Caught in the Middle : Students Wade Into a Sea of Construction at Six New Schools

September 12, 1993|PSYCHE PASCUAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SOUTHEAST AREA — Workers were still whisking away litter, applying fresh paint and vacuuming classrooms last week as 4,600 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders began classes at six new middle schools in Norwalk and La Mirada.

The first bells rang at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday with a few students housed in rooms normally used for band and computer classes and in the school library.

"I didn't expect the rooms to be like this," Corvallis Middle School student Jasmine Young said as she stood in the doorway of a portable classroom, staring out at a heap of dirt, open trenches, exposed cables, desks and filing cabinets wrapped in plastic.

The Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District created the new middle school system after parents complained for years that eighth-graders were too young for high school and that sixth- and seventh-graders were too old for elementary schools.

Officials reopened Corvallis and Reginald M. Benton schools. Built as intermediate schools in the 1950s, they were closed in 1978 because of declining enrollment. Workers had to order new furniture, repair broken fixtures and repaint classrooms to ready the schools for opening day, officials said.

In addition, four elementary schools, Cora Hargitt, Hutchinson, Loretta F. Lampton and Nellie L. Waite, were converted to middle schools.

The district is spending $5 million on repairs, paint, furniture and on 36 portable classrooms that had to be added at the six campuses. With about 600 students, Hutchinson is the smallest of the six middle schools. Corvallis is the largest, with about 900 students.

Administrator Edward Wong said construction was supposed to be done before the first day of school. He blamed the delay on the late installation of portable classrooms.

All of the schools originally were designed to house a smaller number of students, so the district decided to move some portable units from John Glenn and La Mirada high schools and to order new ones.

But bids for the new portables exceeded the district's cost estimates, he said.

Less-expensive classrooms finally were purchased for about $55,000 apiece, but the delay pushed back the installation of electrical wiring and carpets to the end of summer.

At Hutchinson Middle School, "we have crews in here madly cleaning," Principal Beverly Eien-Johnson said as she inspected six portable classrooms that were still closed to students.

One of the rooms remained locked until workers completed a final inspection, Eien-Johnson said. Students were expected to move into the classrooms on Monday.

Eien-Johnson said changes at Hutchinson were made to accommodate middle school students. Bigger chairs had to be bought and basketball hoops adjusted for taller students.

The cement was barely dry on the walkways between portable classrooms at Corvallis when bells rang on the first day of school, Principal Sonny Morper said.

Because of that, students were temporarily housed in rooms used for band. At midday when one portable classroom was finally ready, a group of about 10 students christened the new desks with their books and pencils.

"It looks like chaos but it isn't," Norwalk-La Mirada school Trustee Armando Moreno Jr. observed as he passed a row of unfinished portable classrooms at Corvallis.

Morper said the other classrooms will probably be finished in several weeks. But students will have to cope with some disorder throughout the year.

Corvallis has ordered five more modular buildings that will serve as temporary classrooms when older parts of the campus are closed for renovation.

"I wish, as a parent, they had done some of the construction ahead of time," Rae Holtzendorff said as she walked around the Corvallis campus.

But she said she was willing to put up with the renovation because she supports the concept of middle schools.

Holtzendorff's older daughter Karlene, now a senior, said she was frightened by the older students when she first entered high school as an eighth-grader. Holtzendorff believes her sixth-grade son will feel more at ease with students closer to his age.

"It's not like high school where students are thrown into a big ocean," she said. "The kids look happy. I'm pleased they opened the middle schools again."

Officials earlier this year hired or transferred about 200 teachers and principals to work at the middle schools. They spent the summer preparing students and parents by explaining changes in boundaries, bus schedules, starting times, even breaks and lunches.

Even so, some students like Corvallis seventh-grader Shauna Ireland were confused when they arrived.

"I thought I was going to go in and get my class and sit down," the 12-year-old said anxiously.

"I found my name on the board, but I had no room number." When she was finally assigned a room, it took her an hour to find it, she said.

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