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A new year, a new school complex for L.A. Unified

The $578-million RFK campus opens on the site of the old Ambassador Hotel.

September 12, 2010|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

The start of the traditional school year Monday will also mark the unveiling of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex, the much fought-over $578-million learning center that now occupies the site of the historic Ambassador Hotel.

The campus, which comprises six independent schools, will unlock its doors to about 3,700 students as a maelstrom of issues buffets the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school system. The school's delayed Sept. 13 opening is the consequence of budget cuts that shortened the school year, while classes here and in other school systems will be larger because of teacher layoffs.

Outside the classroom, this year will see a new L.A. school board and superintendent. And the teacher's union and administrators have begun tense negotiations over a new teacher evaluation system that might include the use of students' standardized test scores.

Amid the turmoil, the RFK complex is, for the district, a rebuke to those who question its ability to do things right. Like the flagship arts high school downtown, the facility was intended as both school and statement. The school also will provide a critical test case for key district reforms.

From the Wilshire Boulevard frontage, the complex looks like a modernist mirage, recreating the height and footprint of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub and the old hotel, the site of Robert Kennedy's assassination.

Some critics call the result a jumble of modernism and historic reference. Historic preservationists note that almost nothing was preserved of an iconic structure that became associated with the political and Hollywood elite.

"A lost educational opportunity," said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy.

Other critics decry the cost.

For proponents, the facility is long overdue.

For decades, tens of thousands of students were bused outside the area or crowded onto campuses that operated year-round on schedules that shortened the academic year for every student. From these new classrooms, a current generation of students will enjoy commanding views of the city —their city — and the mountains behind them through the glass curtain wall on the north side of the main building.

"The kids who have been bused out over the years deserve a sense of dominion," said architect David Goodale.

A few scattered historic features remain: the Cocoanut Grove's east wall, a clock, an arched portal, some woodwork — and not much else. The Paul Williams-designed coffee shop reappears as a replica-turned-teachers lounge. Much of the campus embodies the same austere, no-frills, pragmatic approach of many new Los Angeles schools, including a warming kitchen that can send out 1,000 trays in 12 minutes.

But numerous distinctive elements include six artworks at a cost of $1 million.

Murals by Judith Baca in the new library depict Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign and his meeting with farmworkers' activist Cesar Chavez. Outside the library are dioramas by Kim Abeles depicting the site's history. The library itself reimagines the old ballroom, where Kennedy gave his last speech after winning the California presidential primary.

In another area, artist Lynn Goodpasture's flat playground labyrinth is based on the tile patterns of the hotel pool, spa and Cocoanut Grove.

A narrow, one-third-acre public park bordering Wilshire Boulevard houses Marya Alford's two "talking benches," which were briefly scorned by L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines as extravagant. A solar-powered speaker near the benches, activated by a motion sensor, delivers old tunes and historic narration. The hope is to keep the park open to the public 24 hours.

The design also permits community access to the library, the two gyms, the 25-meter pool, playing fields, a broad front lawn and a school auditorium like no other. The intimate, 585-seat house is embellished with a richly textured Moroccan motif of reds, yellows and browns and a dark ceiling illuminated with pinpricks of light like distant stars.

Students at two small schools, including the UCLA Community School, previewed the complex last year because their academies opened on the south portion of the site in fall 2009.

"Because this is a historic place, I think you could learn a lot," said Alesa Menor, 10, who's entering fifth grade at the UCLA school.

Independent schools like Alesa's are intended to serve as extended educational families from kindergarten through 12th grade. And also unlike traditional schools, each academy at the complex will have substantial control over its budget and curriculum.

Community activists long involved in lobbying for the RFK campus envision a setting like the Harlem Success Academy Charter School in Manhattan, which begins working with students as babies.

That enveloping approach would be a first for L.A. Unified and also would require substantial new funding, conceded Veronica Melvin, head of the nonprofit Alliance for a Better Community.

But at least the campus is now in place.

"The RFK school site will be a beacon," she predicted.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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