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Orange County

Four New Campuses Opening in O.C.


Dust-covered desks and burgundy carpet remnants line the halls of Oak Creek Elementary, where the smell of fresh paint hangs heavy.

School starts Thursday, and Principal Tammera Parham said watching workers put the final touches on the new Irvine school is like "witnessing a miracle in progress."

In Laguna Niguel, crews scramble to finish another campus, for 400 elementary students, and in Garden Grove residents gawk as workers paint and plant grass at an old neighborhood school set to reopen after being closed for 23 years.

In San Juan Capistrano, nervous teens audition to enroll at a new private arts conservatory as pianos are wheeled into classrooms and dance floors are installed.

Shifting population growth and a 1998 state proposition that authorized $9.2 billion in school construction bonds continue to translate to new public schools, and the growing demand for alternatives to the public system is driving an increase in private institutions. The four new campuses will be added to more than 800 other public and private schools in Orange County.

When classes start at Oak Creek, more than 500 students will swarm the campus.

Bustling around in black overalls and a striped T-shirt a week before classes begin, Parham talks over the drone of drills and trucks as she greets kindergartners and their parents registering for school. Her office is a bit dim because not all the lights are installed.

"Our commitment has been to get the classrooms ready," she said. "Everything else may not be perfect, but when the teachers can bring those kids into finished classrooms on Thursday, that will be perfection."

The district selected the site, near the western end of the Oak Creek development, in its effort to locate schools so that elementary students will travel less than a mile and a half, officials said.

"It's not so much easing the burden on the other schools, but serving kids in the smallest radius we can," said Dean Waldfogel, superintendent of the Irvine Unified School District. "We're trying to minimize cross-town transportation and busing."

Laguna Niguel Elementary, which also will open Thursday with about 400 students, was built to relieve crowding at other area schools. Attendance boundaries will be ignored the first year so students from throughout Capistrano Unified School District can enroll.

The district is waiting to redraw boundaries so they won't have to be altered again next year when five more schools are scheduled to open, district spokesman David Smollar said.

Although tractors and trucks sit next to the school on an empty acre of dirt--a future playing field--the classrooms are ready for students, and teachers have already started to unpack their boxes.

"What you see lying around will be gone in a matter of hours," said Associate Supt. Dan Crawford, stepping over a pile of purple and white irrigation pipes. "We're way ahead of where we need to be to be ready for classes to start."

At the California Conservatory of the Arts in San Juan Capistrano, auditions will be held until all 125 positions are filled for its programs in dance, visual arts and musical theater. Students from sixth grade through high school will attend academic classes elsewhere and, after school, come to the conservatory for instruction every day for up to three hours.

Establishing the school as an after-school program allows students from private schools and non-arts charter schools to develop their talents, said David Greene, who founded and directs the school with Nancy Melbourne, fellow Orange County School of the Arts founding director.

On Wednesday, eight students, sitting in a semicircle of folding chairs in a room where the carpet is still covered with plastic, were accepted into the musical theater program after singing and performing monologues.

Irvine sixth-grader Kylie Guiral buried her face in her hands when Green announced she had been selected.

"I'm good at acting but bad at singing. Hopefully this program will make me better," said Kylie, an 11-year-old version of actress Sarah Jessica Parker who sang a song from "Annie" and recited a scene from "The Diary of Anne Frank."

In north Orange County, crews are renovating Garden Park Elementary School in Garden Grove, set to reopen as a district school after closing in 1979. The school was one of the first victims of declining enrollment in the 1970s, and over the years has been leased by community organizations and private schools.

In 1993, the district started reopening most of the 10 schools that were closed as a growth boom swept west from the district's campuses in Santa Ana. Garden Park is in the western part of Garden Grove, the last area to regain the population to justify reopening a school, said district spokesman Alan Trudell.

Nearly $500,000 in renovations are to be finished by the time the 250-student school opens Thursday.

New PTA President Michele Heim and her twin daughters, who will be in second grade, walk past the school nearly every day and have seen the old campus transformed into a new school, she said. Her daughters are excited about helping to decide some of its essential components: school mascot and colors.

Kayla and Casey Heim are voting for pink and purple, and according to the PTA grapevine, the top mascot contenders are eagles, panthers, gators and geckos.

"They get to decide who they're going to be--that was a big selling point for them," said Heim, 35. "And for those of us on the PTA, we can invent the school's reputation and make a difference from the ground up."

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