After a two-year struggle to preserve the architectural integrity of a Sherman Oaks landmark, the last Los Angeles Unified school in the San Fernando Valley without air conditioning will finally get relief by next summer.
Kester Avenue Elementary School was designed 50 years ago by architect Richard Neutra, and was copied by schools around the world. Neutra created a school with single-story buildings and long, covered walkways under wood-paneled ceilings.
Believing classrooms should seem like living rooms and open onto patios, Neutra positioned expansive windows to allow cross-ventilation and keep temperatures down. In some classrooms, sliding walls allow even more air through. A large, grassy courtyard spotted with trees creates an oasis in the center of the campus.
Although the school's 31 classrooms are noticeably cooler than most buildings in the Valley, students and teachers said they can become unbearable on hot days.
But when the district began to install air-conditioning units on the walls of classrooms two years ago, there were protests.
"There was an outcry because the school is an architectural landmark," said Robert Collins, a district superintendent. "The principal said the air conditioners that go into the windows would have destroyed the building's architectural ambience."
The district revised the plans twice to accommodate the historical requirements, at a cost of $294,000, and a plan was approved Sept. 7 to install air-conditioning equipment on the roof. Completion is expected by June 2001.
"This is the light at the end of the tunnel," said Principal Sandi Barrett. "It's a go. It's going to take all year, but we're going to have air conditioning."
In the meantime, school will let out 40 minutes early for Kester's 1,000 students today, as it did Thursday as temperatures soared into the 90s. Barrett said students' concentration deteriorated after lunch as the rooms heated up. School nurse Elaine Solmiano said the number of students visiting her office has doubled in recent days as children complain of headaches and bloody noses caused by the scorching heat.
Teachers adopted creative methods to keep their sweating students cool, spraying them with spritzers, marching them in front of fans and keeping a water bottle on every desk.
In an effort to combat the heat, math teacher Nancy Jacobs said, she keeps the lights off in her classroom, keeps her fans running and arrives at 6:30 a.m. to open the doors of her classroom to circulate air. After lunch, she gives students wet paper towels to place on the back of their necks.
Teacher Patty Inouye keeps a bin of white washcloths in the classroom refrigerator. At the beginning of each class, she has students swipe their faces and parade in a slow circle before three classroom fans in a "fan walk."
First-grade teacher Marie Bernier sprays students with water as they enter the classroom.
Students seemed resigned.
"I'm hot," said 8-year-old Zaina Mimar as she rolled up the legs of her overalls. "I'm telling my mother to get me different shirts because I'm so hot."
"When it's really hot, I feel really lazy," said Jessica Cuestas, 9.
Fifth-grader Firusa Charitova said she drinks lots of water.
"During recess," she said, "I just sit sometimes."