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Castelar Elementary students get exercise during library time

Since 2003, students at the Chinatown school have had to trek two blocks to the L.A. Public Library, as plans to construct a new library on their own campus have repeatedly stalled.

January 27, 2009|Yvonne Villarreal

Shortly after 10 a.m., Lily Wong's first-grade class gathered into two single-file lines outside Castelar Elementary School in Chinatown. With two strings of yarn around each student's neck -- one holding an index card with their names printed in black marker, the other holding their library cards -- the class of about 20 students shuffled their little feet along the sidewalk of Yale Street for an excursion.

For students at most schools, this isn't a typical field trip. But for the more than 700 students who attend Castelar, there's nothing unusual about it. It's simply how they get to the library, since the school doesn't have one.

The southbound two-block trek across intersections to Hill and Ord streets, where the Chinatown branch of the Los Angeles Public Library is located, has become a routine expedition for students since 2003.

A public library opened in 1977 on the school campus, giving students the opportunity to work on projects, check out books or complete their homework. But when the library moved six years ago, it wasn't immediately replaced. Los Angeles Unified School District officials say construction of an on-site library is expected to begin in the fall, but parents say they've waited long enough.

"It's not safe," said Sophia Thompson, whose 5- and 8-year-old daughters attend the school. "There's a lot of strange people wandering the area. We put kids in school so they're not roaming the streets. Here we are doing the exact opposite."

Parents, students and teachers have protested to the Board of Education. They say board President Monica Garcia, who represents the area, denied knowledge of the situation even though she is said to have visited the school nearly three years ago to address the problem.

"What's important is that I am very supportive of the community mobilization that caused increased attention to the needs of the school," Garcia said. "The project ran into setbacks, and it is completely unacceptable that they have been without this service. I appreciate their outreach to all the levels of the district and the city to make sure we are on track."

Among the parents' main concerns is whether the absence of a school library is interfering with the quality of education their children are receiving.

"What are the options if my child's grades aren't good?" asked Mei Huang, 43, who lives in Chinatown and has volunteered to take her daughter's class to the library. "How can she and other kids get the help they need if there is no library with resources to help them study better? It's not fair to deny them a good education."

But if test results are any indication, the lack of a campus library hasn't hindered the students' performance. Castelar scored 819 on the 2008 Academic Performance Index, surpassing the state target of 800 after rising steadily since 2002. The API score, which ranges from 200 to 1,000, is a measure of student achievement.

Students with a penchant for reading say they wish they had easy access to books.

"It would be so fun to have a library at school," said first-grader Cindy Huang, 6, who is not related to Mei Huang. "We always have to walk far away just to get books."

Construction on a library at the school began in 2006, but it was halted three months later when workers discovered a load-bearing wall that could not be removed, said Hunter Gaines, an L.A. Unified senior project manager.

Alternative plans are now underway; designs for the renovation will be submitted to the Division of the State Architect for approval in early February, Gaines said. But parents remain skeptical, fearing that the process could be delayed further.

"I still want to know why it is taking so long," Huang said. "Their reasons don't seem enough. It takes a baby 10 months to develop. How long does it take for a library? It's been years. I don't know if this school will ever see a library."

Bruce Kendall, the district's deputy chief executive of existing facilities, said that the project remains a high priority and that he plans to keep parents updated on its development. Blueprints were presented at a community meeting in December, and a letter was sent to parents this month, detailing the progress of the project.

And while L.A. Unified has control over its property, the city is committed to helping the district ensure there are no further delays, said Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes.

"We want to make sure the plan for the construction of the library remains on schedule," Reyes said. "We've been waiting too long. Having a library on campus is critical."

In addition to the 2,330-square-foot library area, plans call for the two-level space to include a nurse's office and student treatment area, a larger computer lab and a music room.

It is expected to open by the fall of 2010.

"These kids need a library," said Castelar Principal Cheuk Yan Choi. "I've always remained optimistic that this project would get done. I hope I'm right."

In the meantime, the district and the school have begun discussions on creating an interim library, to be operational by March. Books will be placed in a large storage bin, and a recently hired librarian will travel to the various classrooms.

For now, the students walk. And at times throughout the journey back to school, they pause. Their small hands open the books and flip through the pages and, if only for a brief second, they get lost in the pages of whimsical illustrations and words.

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yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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