In a sparkling clean classroom at the new Plaza Vista Elementary School in Irvine, 20 new boxes of crayons sat unopened atop shiny new white tabletops. Twenty tiny chairs were tucked neatly into place behind each one.
Today, when the year-round school in the Westpark neighborhood opens for learning, 20 first-graders will take their seats in the airy classroom. They will find crayons and much more awaiting them at the $17-million, 10-acre school.
Plaza Vista Principal Bruce Terry, a 16-year veteran of Irvine's Vista Verde School and its principal for the past 12 years, plans to be on the roof of the school with a bullhorn when the 500-plus students file on to school grounds at 8:15 this morning.
Fielding a barrage of questions from staff that ranged from "Where will I teach?" to "Where do you want the soap dispensers?" Terry could hardly contain his glee about the school he learned in January would be his to run.
"The beauty of opening a new school is that you can get some of the finest educators," he said. "It's an adventure, and they are the adventurists."
With its rapidly growing student population, Orange County is experiencing something like a school building boom. Plaza Vista is one of at least eight new schools that will open this year in the county. Two of them, also year-round schools, opened earlier this month.
Westmont Elementary School in Anaheim opened July 7, with 875 students in 32 classrooms. And in Orange, the new Running Springs Elementary School swung into session Monday with 650 students.
Irvine also will open the new Northwood High School to grades nine and 10 in September. And in the Capistrano Unified School District, four new schools are in the works. Two elementary schools and an elementary and middle school combination will open next fall. The district also will open a new high school in two years.
Irvine's Plaza Vista, still only partly built, will eventually go from kindergarten to eighth grade. For now, the oldest children will be sixth-graders. Next year, when the middle school wing is completed, classes will go through the seventh grade. An eighth grade will be added in fall 2001.
The school will draw its students primarily from Irvine's Westpark and College Park communities, the same attendance boundaries as College Park Elementary School. Because the program is year-round, enrollment in the school is optional. Nevertheless, Terry has no worries about attracting enough students: most grades have a waiting list of people from outside the primary enrollment area that would like to attend.
Designed to reflect the best features of other Irvine schools, Plaza Vista revolves around a skylit, wide-open media center (the new name for school libraries) similar to the one at Meadow Park Elementary School. Rather than having to consciously choose to go to the library, students will practically walk through it every time they come in or out of the school.
The school's $17-million price tag included $6.7 million to purchase the property, and $8.6 million to build and equip the facility. Design costs were more than $700,000.
Plaza Vista was a frenzy of activity Tuesday, as everyone from the school nurse to the cafeteria manager scrambled to ready their spaces for the students' arrival. Contractor Mike LeMieux of the Barnhart Co., the project's superintendent, was working at the school so late Monday night that he spent the night on the roof rather than drive home to San Diego to sleep.
While teachers decorated their classrooms and fire inspectors were making the rounds Tuesday, contractors labored away on the middle school wing, and on a multipurpose auditorium that is still unfinished. Modeled after the auditorium at University Park Elementary School, the indoor stage has a large sliding door at the back that enables it to double as an amphitheater when viewed from outside.
Giant mounds of mulch still surrounded the playground Tuesday, but Terry vowed they would be cleared by the start of school. Athletic fields at the outskirts of the school property are still just fields of dirt, so physical education classes will be held at a park adjacent to the school.
In some ways, the school of the future is a return to the past. After years of "open schools" that lacked doors or even dividers between classrooms, Plaza Vista has 22 distinct classrooms. They are bright and airy, with giant windows that face into a common computer lab for each grade level.
That's a welcome change for Keith Olderp, who has taught at Irvine's El Camino Real, also a year-round school, since it opened in 1973.
"I just needed a change of scenery, and windows," Olderp said. "This is the first time I've ever had a door."
While Olderp may be one of the adventurists that Terry treasures in his new staff, teaching at Plaza Vista might be a little bit like going back to the future for the veteran teacher.