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L.A. Unified Opens 1st Valley School in 31 Years

Education: Van Nuys campus will draw pupils from six elementaries, but crowding remains a problem in the district.


Like many of the 400 other children on the playground of the Columbus Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys on Monday, 7-year-old Erick Monterrozo had a look of uncertainty.

Would he make new friends? Was he going to like his new teacher?

This was not just the first day of school for the children. It was the first day for the new school--the first built by the Los Angeles Unified School District in the San Fernando Valley in 31 years.

The opening comes not a moment too soon as the district grapples with overcrowding in working-class neighborhoods like those in the East Valley.

The year-round kindergarten-through-fifth-grade campus at Columbus Avenue and Vanowen Street will draw 686 students from six area schools, with 400 on campus at any one time.

The school also will keep 120 children in their own neighborhood, instead of busing them as far away as Canoga Park.

However, the opening of Columbus won't end year-round calendars in surrounding schools, because of the enrollment crush throughout the district.

"There's still a lot to do for this area," said school board member Julie Korenstein, whose district includes Columbus.

Starting with bond money from 1997, the school district plans to build or upgrade 80 schools over the next four years. Twelve new schools and various expansions are planned for the East Valley.

Another bond measure to build schools will be placed on a November ballot, but the two measures combined won't eliminate year-round schedules, district officials say.

If voters approve the new bond measure, "it will get kids off the buses," said Gordon Wholers, chief of staff for Supt. Roy Romer.

The district has 17,000 students who are bused from overcrowded neighborhood schools.

Wholers said the East Valley has overcrowding problems that rival those found in Hollywood, East Los Angeles, southeast Los Angeles County and the central Los Angeles area, where Belmont/Hollywood Primary Center No. 3, across from MacArthur Park, also opened Monday.

The new primary center will serve 352 students in kindergarten through first grade on a year-round schedule. Altogether, the district has opened 13 primary centers, which are usually built on 1 1/2-acre sites for children in kindergarten up to third grade.

Officials said the last new campus to open in the Los Angeles district was Gratts Elementary School near downtown Los Angeles in 1996. A year later, Van Gogh Street Elementary in Granada Hills was rebuilt on the same site because of damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The last school built in the Valley was Kennedy High School in Granada Hills, which opened in 1971.

Columbus is the 19th L.A. Unified school opened in the last 19 years, according to a district report that tracked school openings since 1983. Nine primary centers have been built in that time.

Construction of Columbus was completed on time and $800,000 under the projected $12.4-million cost. Located across from Valley Presbyterian Hospital, the school took two years to build on land already owned by the district.

On Monday, second-grader Erick Monterrozo was the first to arrive, clutching his father's hand as they walked one block from their home.

"Now I don't have to be late for work," said his father, Johnny Monterrozo, adding that it used to take 20 minutes to walk Erick to Valerio Street Elementary.

In addition to 26 classrooms, Columbus has a library, a lunch shelter, and a playground with basketball hoops, a stickball wall, volleyball nets and a grassy corner so green and lush that mushrooms were sprouting from it.

Tanya Casillas, 10, finished fourth grade less than two weeks ago at Stonehurst Avenue Elementary in Sun Valley, but began fifth grade Monday morning at Columbus. Because the schools are on different schedules, Tanya's summer vacation was cut short, but she didn't seem to mind.

"I woke up at 7 a.m. instead of 6," she said, smiling because she no longer has to take a bus to Sun Valley every morning.

Bringing together children from a slew of schools may prove a challenge for the school's administrators and teachers, who were recruited from L.A. Unified as well as other local school districts.

"It's going to be difficult," said Principal Barbara Thibodeau, who was principal at nearby Chandler Elementary for the last 10 years. "But everyone's starting with a clean slate."

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