Culver Park Continuation student Marcus Tyson, 17, was less than thrilled… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
When Marcus Tyson visited his new campus days before his senior year was set to begin, he stood in a nearly empty parking lot and declared that the trailer before him looked "like prison."
By Tuesday, the first day of school, mounds of dirt and workbenches had disappeared, but the white-and-green portable classroom remained.
"Still pretty awful," said Marcus, 17.
Culver Park Continuation High School, now stuck in the back of a parking lot between the district's adult and middle schools, began classes this week with about 50 students in a single portable unit.
As students shuffled in the doors Tuesday, the sounds of hammer on metal droned in the background as construction workers pieced together a walkway for a second trailer that will house office staff and a teachers lounge. Tables and umbrellas will also be placed outside.
The new principal, Veronica Montes, spent part of her morning shepherding students away from a hole in the ground, where workers were still installing phone and data wiring.
"We're in transition mode," she said, while scanning for wayward children.
Elementary school students steering their rolling backpacks flooded the parking lot on their way to Farragut Elementary down the street.
For decades Culver Park had been housed on a pocket of El Marino Language School, an elementary campus in the Culver City Unified School District. But last year, the school board began talks about moving the continuation school so that El Marino's kindergarten could begin a full-day schedule like at the rest of the district's elementary schools.
The board voted in March to move Culver Park to the parking lot, with the understanding that two portable classrooms would be renovated and serve as a temporary home.
The Southern California chapter of the ACLU, prompted by allegations of vermin infestations and structural damage in the trailers, launched an investigation in June. Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy for the group, has requested documents from the school district to prove that the current setup meets school facility standards.
"We are committed to ensuring that all students have equal access to safe and clean classrooms and facilities, and the concerns that we've heard from a number of the Culver Park community are very troubling," Allen said.
Newly hired Culver City Unified Supt. David LaRose said he is looking into the controversy.
"My role and goal is to learn as much as I possibly can about what the current reality is," he said. "In the process of decision-making, if we instilled a sense of distrust or we inadvertently made people feel devalued, well, then we have to fix that."
Board President Karlo Silbiger said there was little choice about moving Culver Park.
"We have one of the best continuation schools in the region," he said, adding that if there'd been room at the elementary campus, the school would have stayed there.
District officials fueled additional concerns by initially selecting two portables that they later announced were not approved for student use by the Division of the State Architect. Administrators then picked a portable next door to house all the students, saying that the larger, newer space was approved.
Teachers rallied behind Montes and LaRose to get the school ready for Tuesday, said Karen Lanier, who has taught at Culver Park for 25 years.
Still, longtime Culver Park teachers, including Lanier and Leslie Johnson, are upset by the decision to put the school in a parking lot. They say it sends the wrong message to continuation students.
"These are kids that often don't have a voice," Lanier said. Alternative schools provide individualized instruction to help students at risk of dropping out.
Marcus said he was a poor student during his two years at Culver City High; he said he was lazy and didn't turn in homework. Now a senior, he said he has become more motivated and hopes to attend Berklee College of Music.
On entering the trailer, students acknowledged that the portable provides more space than what they had before. A new-carpet smell lingered amid the whiteboards, rows of desks and computers in the corner of one room.
Courtney Stevenson, 17, peeked out the door and asked Montes if the school had any hand sanitizer. Montes referred her to the bathroom, at the end of the trailer. The original two trailers did not have an attached bathroom, and district officials have touted the restrooms as one benefit of the current site.
Courtney, however, was skeptical.
"If it's a port-a-potty," she said, "I ain't goin'."
But Montes assured her the bathrooms were fine and just a few steps away.