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More Schools to Go Back to This Fall

Education: Districts open 4 new, 7 former campuses to accommodate smaller class sizes and booming enrollment.


HUNTINGTON BEACH — Dareen Yonts landed her first teaching job in 1967 as a fifth-grade instructor at John R. Peterson Elementary. Thirty years later, she's back as principal of the school, which closed in 1981 but is reopening to accommodate booming enrollment in Huntington Beach City School District.

"It's like a full circle," Yonts said Tuesday, sitting in the newly renovated principal's office.

Peterson is one of seven Orange County campuses that are reopening this month after closing in the 1970s and '80s when enrollment plummeted. Four brand-new schools also are being opened this fall.

A resurgence in the student population and the much-lauded state program to reduce class sizes in primary grades are behind the need for more space.

"We haven't had that many openings for some time," said John Dean, county superintendent of schools. "Districts really had to crank up their resources and reorganize as a whole to prepare for this school year."

The new campuses--like Wagon Wheel Elementary in Capistrano Unified, the county's fastest-growing district--will feature the latest technology as well as modern decor. But the older schools like Peterson, Skylark Elementary in Garden Grove and Guinn Foss Elementary in Tustin are getting make-overs that have revitalized their communities, parents and administrators said.

"This is like a birth of a baby in a family," Yonts said. "It's a new experience in Huntington Beach. The last school that opened here was in 1975."

After $1.7 million in renovations, Peterson looks virtually new. The entire campus was stripped and rebuilt. Besides paint, tiles and carpeting, the wiring, phone system, playground, even the door locks are new.

The dramatic face-lift has brightened the neighborhood, residents said as they inspected the campus Tuesday at a community ice cream social.

"It looks beautiful," said Wenda Kanemaru, whose daughters will be among Peterson's pupils when classes begin today.

The school's make-over is so extensive, Yonts said, that the only resemblance to the campus where she taught in 1967 "is that fact that the school has windows and grass."

The 15-acre campus features repaved blacktop and new play areas. Visitors Tuesday seemed especially impressed by the cafeteria, where the lunch tables fold and fit into the walls to make room for assembly programs.

Refurbishing the 34-year-old school over the summer has been a scramble, officials said. Teachers enlisted parents to help with last-minute details such as cleaning up debris, hanging posters and carrying textbooks to the classrooms.

"We couldn't have done it without the parents," third-grade teacher Mark Ver Steeg said. "We had parent volunteers who don't even have children who go to Peterson."

A few chores remain. Insulation pads are stacked on a walkway until they can be installed. Jungle gyms and other playground equipment have yet to be delivered. And bare earth outside classrooms awaits foliage.

When all the work is done, Yonts said, the school will accommodate as many as 680 students in kindergarten through fifth grades, with first- through third-grade classes limited to 20 students each.

"We're setting up conditions for optimal learning and teaching," she said. "These kids are going to live through the 20th century . . . so everything we're doing is like putting another coin into the bank slot to prepare a better tomorrow."

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