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Schools That Aren't Built by the Book

With open land scarce and expensive in crowded cities, districts are putting campuses in nontraditional spaces such as shopping malls. But some officials resist such unusual solutions.


About 1,000 Santa Ana middle school students found respite from overcrowded campuses this fall by reporting on the first day of school to Bristol Market Place.

Their destination was a three-story schoolhouse built where a building supply store once stood, atop a parking garage.

The Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School stands beside a Ralphs supermarket, a Montgomery Ward and a new HomeBase, which moved after selling its old property to the Santa Ana Unified School District.

As odd as this arrangement may sound, it represents the kind of new models that school districts across America are exploring as they find it increasingly difficult to acquire land for the traditional suburban school surrounded by playgrounds and houses.

In built-out urban areas, and even sprawling suburbs, the political and financial costs of acquiring 20- to 40-acre parcels are forcing educators to reexamine their ideas about how schools should look, how much land they require and where they can stand.

Out of this ferment are coming new, and sometimes zany, configurations, including schools with playgrounds on their roofs, schools that use city parks and schools that share playgrounds.

In a nation where so much land is occupied by malls, it was perhaps inevitable that the shopping center would become a new frontier for schools as well.

Some districts have leased space in malls to set up small schools for secondary students who haven't fit in well on larger campuses.

In other cases, educational needs and market forces have converged to make aging or unsuccessful malls attractive as sites for full-blown schools.

Last year, the Pomona Unified School District opened the 650-student Pueblo Elementary School in one wing of the dying Plaza at Indian Hill. Now the district has bought a large part of the mall and will soon open two more elementary schools there.

The opportunity was not quite as attractive in Santa Ana, where HomeBase simply wanted to improve its location in Bristol Market Place. Mendez School represented a hard-to-swallow compromise for a district of 60,000 students that has grown rapidly over the last decade and has had trouble finding open land for expansion.

The $18-million purchase price for the site, added to $23.9 million for construction, brought the cost to nearly $42 million, about average for an urban middle school.

Opponents of the project were uncomfortable with the idea of junior high students cavorting through a mall parking lot, and some thought a school could have been constructed elsewhere for less money.

"I think it was a scandal," said school board member Rosemarie Avila. "I think we spent $12 million more than we needed to for the school--enough to build an elementary school."

Another drawback is the size of the campus. Students have a gym but a smaller athletic field area than is customary for a middle school. The 12-acre campus is only about half the size recommended by state officials for a school of its enrollment.

"For 12 acres, we would say, 'Put 450 kids on it,' " said Fred Yeager, a field representative for the California Department of Education.

'It Has Really Turned Out Nice'

Despite its limitations, the school has filled up on a first-come, first-served basis by attracting parents with its back-to-basics approach.

And now Avila says she is glad it is there. "It has turned out really nice," she said.

Mendez was built under a state pilot program for "space saver" schools that "minimize the need for the relocation of inhabitants of residential, commercial or industrial structures."

It was intended to encourage below-ground construction, multistory construction and joint occupancy in shopping centers, offices or apartment buildings.

The program folded after funding only two schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District is developing the other one in conjunction with the California Science Center in Exposition Park.

In the spirit of the program, however, Yeager said the state is learning to be flexible in dealing with the constraints of districts such as Santa Ana.

"The department's concern is that the educational program gets met," Yeager said. "Whether that means do it on a park, or a city gymnasium next door, those are the approaches the space saver was looking at."

An ingenious approach to saving space is exhibited by International Elementary School in Long Beach, built on a former parking lot. About 1,000 students attend the school, which occupies only 2 1/2 acres.

The money saved on the land was plowed into the school's striking architecture, dominated by a 24-foot-high corrugated metal screen that wraps around two sides, enclosing a playground on the roof.

Although International won raves from architecture critics, such departures from the traditional mold still make some officials uncomfortable, particularly in L.A. Unified, a district that must comply with a court order requiring it to maintain minimum playground space at all schools.

"District staff has not fully embraced that sort of solution as a priority, because there's still a very strong commitment to provide equitable facilities in every area of the city," said Mott Smith, director of special projects for the 720,000-student district. "The tendency is not to ask permission to go outside the box. The tendency is to try to make more traditional solutions work."

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