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Appealing to the highest common denominator

L.A.'s private schools spend big on upgrades as they try to keep pace with rising expectations for top-tier facilities.

November 19, 2007|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

From Chatsworth to El Segundo, private schools are spending an estimated $600 million in a building boom that reflects the strong demand for their services and the intense competition among their ranks.

Brentwood School is building an aquatics center that looks like a modern equivalent of the Greco-Roman baths of ancient Alexandria. Windward School, also on the Westside, is completing a new library with digital media studios and an indoor-outdoor reading area with a fireplace. Loyola High School near downtown recently opened a new science hall equipped with the most advanced instruments, and, across the new commons, it is restoring its historic brick Jesuit residence hall.

The building frenzy is being driven by aging facilities, new teaching models that call for informal classroom settings, space for group projects and hands-on activities, and the need for new technology. It also is aimed, of course, at keeping these schools competitive.

There is an assumption that private schools -- where tuition can top $26,000 annually -- can provide the best of everything. School leaders say they increasingly are expected to meet students' diverse needs, with more specialized staff, multiple counselors, psychologists, deans of students, and parent, alumni and community advisors who all need offices and meeting space.

"One of the factors at play is that the nature of education and learning is changing; expectations are shifting, with an impact on fiscal plans and technology," said James McManus, executive director of the California Assn. of Independent Schools. "Students expect to walk into science labs and see computer hookups, and that means more space and different configurations of classrooms."

Some educators, even those involved in new building projects, decry the "facilities race," arguing that the millions going into these projects might be better spent on teacher salaries and financial aid. And the capital campaigns can be particularly daunting to parents already paying high tuitions and being tapped for annual fundraising as well. But schools say they are under pressure from parents, alumni, trustees and other forces.

In the competitive spirit

The building projects coincide with a massive public school construction program being undertaken by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is spending $12.4 billion to build 132 schools by 2013.

Few of the private schools -- Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth and New Roads in Santa Monica are exceptions -- are building new campuses from the ground up, but private educators are looking over their shoulders at the government funds pouring into public school improvements and the potential competition from public charter schools, which are attracting curious families who previously might have selected private education.

But independent schools are still sought after. The 150-student Buckley School, for example, is building new facilities at its Sherman Oaks campus to accommodate an additional 80 students, said communications director Kim Kerscher.

Unlike public schools, private school construction is mostly supported by donations from long-planned capital campaigns. An increasing number also are turning to bond financing, which -- tax-free and paid back over years -- allows schools to tap capital more quickly without waiting for fundraising pledges.

Private schools do not have to submit plans to the state Department of Education, which reviews the educational function of public buildings, or to the Division of the State Architect, which ensures that public schools comply with the Field Act -- governing such things as seismic standards -- and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But they still face obstacles: Private schools often are located in residential neighborhoods, must adhere to city building and safety codes, and are required to obtain land-use permits from local planning departments. Conditional-use permits are subject to public hearings and can include hundreds of conditions restricting building height, parking (some mandate busing of students to minimize traffic, for example), and weekend hours.

Evolving with education

Still, independent school educators say they end up with more creative and bold designs than public schools, and campuses that can match the amenities and look of a small college.

"We find we have a lot of freedom," said architect Joseph Masotta of Parallax Associates, a Culver City firm that specializes in private school design.

Masotta said he and partner Craig Jameson purposely steer clear of the red tape of public projects. Parallax is designing Brentwood School's aquatics center and a project at Berkeley Hall School on Mulholland Drive.

"People who come to us are always looking for something exceptional and surprising," he said.

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