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Castaic's a high school short of completion

The northern L.A. County suburb has waited for more than a decade. But a variety of factors have stymied the hopes of residents.

October 02, 2009|Ann M. Simmons

When David Huffaker moved to Castaic in 1985, he was certain that one day his children would graduate from a brand new high school that the community had been promised for so long.

But his son is 20 now and serving his Mormon mission in Salt Lake City and Wyoming. His daughter is a senior at West Ranch High in Valencia, the next suburb over. And Castaic still lacks its own high school.

Residents in this semirural canyon community on the far edge of Los Angeles County have waited more than a decade for a high school to call their own. They voted -- twice now -- in favor of multimillion-dollar bond measures that they expected would go toward building the campus and waited in frustration as site after site was considered and rejected.

"It's just a lousy situation," Huffaker said.

A high school, many residents believe, would be embraced as a landmark in Castaic, a facility that would finally give the community a sense of identity, a sports team to root for, a campus students could actually walk to, a place for folks to gather.

"Having a high school within our community will go a long way to promote community pride," said Steve Teeman, president of the Castaic Area Town Council, an advisory board that represents the unincorporated town before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Castaic is hardly a start-up town. It was settled around 1915 at the time the two-lane Ridge Route was completed over the mountain tops, cutting a grinding, uphill pathway from Castaic to Gorman. Once little more than a truck stop alongside Interstate 5, it is now a place of sprawling equestrian lots, modern tract homes and neighborhood shopping centers. There are three grade schools and one junior high.

But no high school. The effort to build a campus has been stymied by various roadblocks -- developer money problems, disagreements over designs, concerns about traffic and noise, and a fear of urban encroachment. Some blame the delay on the William S. Hart Union High School District, which is headquartered in nearby Santa Clarita.

"They have continuously promised Castaic a high school and they have continuously failed to deliver on this," said John Kunak, a Castaic area resident of 22 years and president of the Castaic Union School District board, which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

School district officials say Castaic residents themselves are partly at fault for opposing some of the possible locations.

Long wait

Castaic is not the first Southland community to wait years or even decades for a hometown high school. Yorba Linda, an affluent foothill community in Orange County, finally got its own high school this year after a four-decade wait. Historic San Juan Capistrano has waited 40 years for a high school to replace the one that was closed down more than a generation ago.

Jaime Castellanos, superintendent of the Hart high school district, said his administration is committed to building a high school in Castaic and has looked at nearly 20 potential locations. In each case, something went wrong.

The first met fierce opposition from neighbors, worried about traffic and the threat to their rural lifestyle.

Another fell flat when the developer had financial problems. Yet another had land-use restrictions that actually prohibited construction of a school.

Back at square one, the school district is now focusing on two sites, including the one that neighbors originally rejected.

"We expect an outcry from the community again. We will have to do outreach," Castellanos said. "Anywhere you put a high school there will be community opposition."

In the meantime, as the adults wrangle, the 400 or so Castaic students who graduate from the eighth grade each year are sent either to West Ranch or Valencia high schools.

Students with older brothers or sisters are sometimes forced to choose between attending school with lifelong friends or their siblings and parents must often juggle dropping off and collecting children at different campuses.

Laura Pearson said her ninth-grade daughter chose to enroll at Valencia to be with her brother, even though all her friends were going to West Ranch, the designated school for this year's incoming Castaic students.

"She chose to go to Valencia because it would be easier on us," said Pearson, who has lived in Castaic for 15 years and serves on the Castaic school board.

West Ranch High is a 15-mile round-trip from Castaic; Valencia High 13 miles. The school district provides transportation only for special education students.

Though the Hart school district high schools exceed California's Academic Performance Index goals, some parents expressed concern about overcrowded classrooms and overloaded sports teams.

Kunak said his daughter spent part of the family's summer vacation studying to ensure that she would land spots in honor's English and advanced placement biology classes during her freshman year at West Ranch, only to discover that too many students wanted to take both classes and that some would not be allowed to attend. Kunak's daughter ultimately got into the classes.

Even if a school site is found in Castaic, officials said it could take another four to five years to build the school.

Many residents are simply resigned to the wait.

"It's been hard," Pearson said. "We have fought for so many years. People are just frustrated. At this point, it's like, 'What do we do?' "

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ann.simmons@latimes.com

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