Southern Californians may not be packed in like sardines yet, despite the region's increasing urbanization, but schools definitely are feeling a squeeze. Many cities are experiencing substantial increases among their populations of young adults, and that means ever-growing numbers of children who need seats in schools.
Typically, children are crowded into existing buildings and portable buildings start popping up on campuses when money for new facilities is tight. Now, with a plan for a first-ever "space-saver" school in Santa Ana, the state is seeking to take an innovative approach to urban public education.
Rather than sprawling for a block or more in a residential neighborhood, the school would occupy a yet-to-be-built three-story structure that would house a parking garage on the ground floor and classrooms for 1,300 intermediate-grade students on the two floors above.
The location, too, is unusual: a shopping mall.
The Legislature, which promised to fund the program from bond measures, recommended that urban school districts build new facilities next to or atop underutilized commercial or industrial buildings to avoid condemning property elsewhere.
Urbanized Santa Ana is an ideal place to launch the project. School board members say they could use 10 new schools right now, and they expect enrollment to rise even more.
Such imaginative approaches to neighborhood schools are needed throughout the region. For example, when damage from the Northridge earthquake forced Los Angeles campuses to close, LEARN (the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now) wisely began an effort to take advantage of vacant commercial spaces nearby and convert empty offices into classrooms.
Facing the Santa Ana effort are questions from some neighbors of the Bristol Market Place mall, where the 98,000-square-foot campus would be built. They worry about traffic, parking and crime problems that might arise from a new school. We hope that the proposal will not be done in by nothing more than "not-in-my-back-yard" resistance. Santa Ana ought to have an opportunity to try this promising approach.
The state has earmarked $23 million to buy the Santa Ana property and has promised $20 million more to build the school and recreational facilities. At a time when funds are scarce in Sacramento, Santa Ana is in line for a windfall that promises to be a useful model for other districts.