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High School Fears Effect of New Campus

Education: Critics say modern Sun Valley facility might draw top students, leaving poor performers at 45-year-old building across the street.

November 23, 2001|ZANTO PEABODY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Students, parents and teachers at Francis Polytechnic High School are fighting to head off what they call the ghettoization of their 45-year-old campus, brought on by a high school to be opened across the street.

The new Sun Valley school--created by renovating an existing office building--would be the first of five high schools and 85 total campuses that the Los Angeles Unified School District needs to build in the next six years to relieve overcrowded classrooms.

The district has not built a high school since 1971.

The new Sun Valley school--on the top two floors of the Anthony Office Building that the district is buying for $50 million from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power--is expected to open in September, district officials said.

No one denies that the northeast San Fernando Valley needs another high school to accommodate current neighborhood students, as well as a projected 6,000 by the year 2007.

But the question is: How will the district decide which students will attend which school?

With seven science labs, sports fields and various modern features, the new school is likely to be more attractive to students than the existing Poly campus, contend faculty, parents and students.

Poly Magnet coordinator Patricia Flenner and a corps of faculty say that given a choice, the most motivated students will choose the new school, leaving only the poorest performers at Poly.

Magnet programs would be bereft of talent and the rest of the students' achievement would slip without peer role models, she said.

Students signed a petition asking the district not to create a separate identity at the new school and instead make it an extension of the existing campus.

"Who wouldn't want to go [to the new school]?" asked sophomore Anthony Gamboa. "They're talking about putting ninth-graders over there, but we should get a chance to go too, because we did our time at this old school."

Too Many Students for Current Campus

While acknowledging a disparity in how the campuses will be equipped, district officials say one school cannot accommodate all students.

"The bottom line is, it's not the facility that educates kids," said District B Supt. Judy Burton. "It's what happens in the classrooms."

On one side of Arleta Avenue, the current enrollment of 3,600 students stretches the seams of old Poly High. A thousand more students from the neighborhood are bused to West Valley schools.

Murals commemorating the Vietnam War, Armenian genocide and school subjects dress up walls on worn buildings. Teacher morale and students' standardized test scores are low. The new school was prescribed to raise both.

Across the avenue, the Anthony office building, with its cascading waterfall and view of the Santa Susana Mountains, would say, "We care about education on this side of the street," Flenner said.

At the outset, the district planned two high schools with separate administrations and identities, which Poly parent and United Teachers of Los Angeles officer John Perez called a recipe for disaster.

After a heated community forum earlier this month, the district retreated and formed an advisory board to reconsider the plan. Made up of district representatives, parents and faculty, it will meet for the first time Monday. Some members, including Poly Principal Christine Clark, fear the process may be too far along to be substantially changed.

Have, Have-Not Situation Feared

Clark was one of the first to voice concern that separate campuses would create a have and have-not situation.

Although the district has not set a firm deadline to decide where students go, officials hope to know by March so parents and students can be notified.

"They're asking us to help design our own guillotine," Flenner said, referring to the meeting.

Possible solutions to be discussed include assigning students by home address, allowing students to select by course of study and having one mega-high school straddling Arleta Avenue.

Burton said one big campus is the least likely solution, because it goes against the accepted notion that bigger is worse.

Parent representative Sylvia Gonzalez said some of the community's fears trace back to the district's year-round school movement that was meant to counter overcrowding.

Poly was the first Valley campus forced to adopt a year-round calendar, under the assumption that other schools would quickly follow. North Hollywood and Van Nuys high schools went year-round five years later.

Gonzalez favors dividing the schools into academies, with scholastic programs similar to college majors.

"Any way you break the school into two separate campuses is a big mistake," she said.

School board member Caprice Young agreed, saying the two schools should share a mascot and colors. "I will not let the things the community fears happen," she said.

Officials might take a cue from the Pomona Unified School District. In the last decade, Pomona has built eight schools and assigned students to them.

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