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At School In The Secret City

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Los Alamos, N.M.

Some people have called it Shangri-La. Years ago, when the name of the "secret city" was kept off the maps of New Mexico, it was known as the site for Project Y. Or simply P.O. Box 1663. But Los Alamos draws its name from the cottonwood trees, alamos in Spanish, that dot the community's perch atop a 7,000-foot-high mesa.

Just reaching Los Alamos is an experience. Turning off U.S. Highway 84/285 onto a road that passes the San Ildefonso Pueblo, there is just land and sky and road lined by craggy, pink-toned hills capped with tufts of clinging pinyon trees. Cars moan up a corkscrewlike road, the Jemez Mountain foothills on one side, cliffs looming in the distance on the other. And finally, Los Alamos itself, what some here call America's longest cul-de-sac because there is essentially one way in and out of town. Most buildings are boxlike and utilitarian, bearing witness to the town's history. Many homes in the oldest residential area have been dressed up with skylights, porches, and decks protruding from their original barrackslike frames.

Los Alamos is a community in transition. It was created with single-minded purpose: to build the first atomic bomb in an effort to end World War II. And with the help of federal money, its schools were created with the same single-mindedness: to recruit and retain the scientists who split the atom by providing a superior education to their children. The schools here have continued to deliver top-notch academic results, and they have continued to receive above-average resources from the federal government.

Los Alamos today, as it has been for decades, is dominated physically, economically, and socially by Los Alamos National Laboratory, the modern-day extension of the scientific lab that housed an arm of the Manhattan Project under the direction of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. When the 10,000-employee lab with its $1 billion budget gets the sniffles, the saying here goes, Los Alamos and much of northern New Mexico get the flu.

The lab, which the University of California operates for the U.S. Department of Energy, has had its share of layoffs and belt-tightening in recent years. Now, the department plans to phase out the payments it has been making to the county and its schools for half a century--roughly $8 million in payments that make up about a third of the district's $24 million annual budget.

The department, the county, and the 3,700-student school system are up against a June deadline to put together a plan that maps out a "self sufficient" future for Los Alamos and its schools. That task is not an easy one: Most of the land in Los Alamos County is owned by federal agencies, and New Mexico tightly controls how much communities can tax themselves to pay for their schools in the name of equity.

So Los Alamos--essentially, a sophisticated one-company town--is suffering something of an identity crisis. The community has had a continual flirtation with the notions of temporariness and permanence--which perhaps isn't surprising for a place once called "The Town That Never Was."

"We know we can't be what we have been," says Evelyn Vigil, the editor and publisher of the local newspaper, the Los Alamos Monitor. "But we don't know what we will be now that we have a chance to change."

Jean Nereson was 23 years old when she arrived in Los Alamos in 1944. The native New Yorker had come from teaching in Texas, lured by a mysterious telegram that offered her a job "somewhere in New Mexico." She was told simply to report to 109 East Palace Ave. in Santa Fe. From there, she rode a bus up a steep hill to meet the school superintendent. Nereson taught in Los Alamos until last year, when she retired after more than 50 years.

"I noticed that all the buildings were green. Even the towels in my dormitory were green. Then we drove to the school, and the school was green. I thought at least there would be a little red schoolhouse, but it was green. I said, 'Goodness, this looks like the Army.' And the superintendent said: 'It is the Army.' I nearly fell over."

--Jean Nereson

Los Alamos is a jarring juxtaposition of old and new. Local landmarks range from Bandelier National Monument--which includes prehistoric ruins and Anasazi Indian volcanic rock dwellings that date to 1150 A.D.--to the heavily guarded plutonium-processing plant surrounded by a thick barbed-wire fence. A few wintering elk graze by the side of the road near one of the many bright blue signs dotting the lab's 43-square-mile territory, cryptic numbers marking various "technical areas."

Schools have been significant in the community since the government zeroed in on the area in 1942, in part because of its comparative isolation. When Oppenheimer and military officials chose Los Alamos as a Manhattan Project site, the only thing in town was the Los Alamos Ranch School, a boarding school opened in 1917 to physically toughen up sickly city boys. When scientists, engineers, and technicians started pouring in to fuel the atomic project, Central School was built for their children. Apparently the military higher-ups were furious because the school looked too permanent for what they thought was to be simply a temporary outpost for the duration of World War II.

Once the war was over, the federal government decided to continue atomic research in Los Alamos. Los Alamos schools came out from under federal control to become part of the state system in 1950. By 1957, the checkpoints and the gates around the town came down. Los Alamos became the state's smallest county in 1960, lifted from parts of three existing counties. In the 1960s, families could start to buy and build their own homes here--until then, the federal government was the landlord.

Congress passed the Atomic Energy Community Act of 1955 to convert into viable, independent communities those places that had been carved out of the wilderness for the Manhattan Project--places like Richland, Wash., and Oak Ridge, Tenn. The act allowed for special payments to the communities and their schools to maintain "conditions which will not impede the recruitment and retention of personnel essential to the atomic energy program." In the '70s and '80s, Richland and Oak Ridge got off the federal dole after the government paid them multimillion dollar lump-sum settlements. Los Alamos remains as the lone Atomic City receiving payments. In this era of federal belt-tightening, wresting a windfall settlement from Congress is highly unlikely. So the Energy Department is eager to have Los Alamos make the transition to self-sufficiency.

Except people here don't know exactly what that means or how--after decades of reliance on the entity that created them--they will achieve it.

"The federal government has addicted us," Los Alamos Schools Superintendent James Anderson says. "We've done everything we've been asked to do, and now we're being asked to survive without it."

"They told me I'd have the children of well-cultured families. Parties, dancing, and plenty of eligible men. Dr. Cook (referring to Walter Cook of the University of Minnesota, who set up the school system) told me that I'd have a beautiful mountain view. I didn't know how I felt about that. But then he said 'You'll have encyclopedias in every classroom.' That was what really sold me."

--Jean Nereson

For Los Alamos, the federal government's intervention has translated into a county that has the highest percentage of adults holding a bachelor's degree or higher in the nation. It has the nation's fourth-highest median household income, at $54,801, and almost no unemployment.

Statistics like these have led some educators and lawmakers in the state to argue that Los Alamos schools no longer need the federal government's cash infusions.

About 85 percent of Los Alamos students are white. The neighboring Espanola school district is 85 percent Hispanic. It's a place that racially, culturally, and economically might appear more at home as a Minneapolis suburb. But here, in a relatively poor state, surrounded by largely Hispanic and American Indian communities, Los Alamos can't help but stick out.

Geography doesn't help matters. The very characteristics that made Los Alamos so attractive to the military minds that created it has given the community a reputation for isolationism and elitism--a label many residents say is inaccurate. From its mesa perch, Los Alamos, known simply as the Hill, looms over the valley dotted by American Indian pueblos.

The Los Alamos lab imports much of its support staff, roughly 40 percent of whom are Hispanic--secretaries, janitors, cafeteria workers, security guards--from neighboring communities like Espanola.

On the outskirts of Espanola, cows graze beside a hill of used car tires. There are scattered mobile homes and lumber yards. The highway into town passes by a sign scarcely legible because the paint has worn off in places, leaving bare wood: "Welcome to Hernandez Elementary. Home of the Pirates." At Los Alamos High School, an electronic sign broadcasts school news to the community.

Part of the reason the Los Alamos district has continued to receive federal payments is New Mexico's school-equalization formula, which redistributes local income and certain federal dollars across the state's 89 school districts.

To enable Los Alamos to keep most of its Energy Department payments for itself, the district has for decades been treated as an exception--an exception various state legislators have tried to scrap over the years and a sore point that hasn't won Los Alamos many friends.

"Because of the disparity in what Los Alamos receives and what everybody else receives, there is and always has been resentment," says Evalynne Hunemuller, the executive director of the New Mexico School Administrators Association in Santa Fe.

Los Alamos spends an average of $6,097 per student for basic instructional needs. The statewide average is $3,741, according to state officials. The Energy Department payments have helped build Los Alamos' relatively low student-teacher ratios, a full palette of Advanced Placement courses, and a wide array of extracurricular activities many districts in the state cut back long ago.

Los Alamos is able to provide some of the highest teacher salaries in the state--though they still fall below the national average--and recruits its teachers nationally.

In turn, its students consistently have ranked among the top in the state on most academic indicators and above national averages on the Scholastic Assessment Test. About 85 percent of Los Alamos High School's graduating class goes on to a four-year college; fewer than 2 percent of its students drop out.

"We have a clientele with private school expectations in a public system," Superintendent Anderson says. "Our schools are an example of what you get with a lot of money over time."

"After the war, I thought they were just going to shut the whole place down. But then some men from D.C. came to say it would be a permanent project. And I stayed. I didn't feel bad not being in a big city because it was so cosmopolitan. . . . We in the schools had the leeway to go as far as we wanted."

--Jean Nereson

The 1,200-student Los Alamos High School shares with the county a civic auditorium and an Olympic-size swimming pool that draws international teams that want to train at high altitude. Students use libraries stocked with CD-ROMs and computer laboratories that offer links to the national lab's supercomputers. Classrooms are well-stocked.

Popular posters in the schools state: "No Whiners" and "Subvert the Dominant Paradigm"--the latter one tacked onto Los Alamos High Principal Lynne Saccaro's wall.

"These are very normal kids; they are not geeks," says Saccaro, who came to Los Alamos from the Oak Park, Ill., school system just outside Chicago six years ago. Things have changed some since then, when she asked who the at-risk students were, and the answer was: "We don't have any." The high school now offers the School of Choice, a school within a school for students "who don't fit the mold." And Saccaro says she's taking pains to bolster the school's fine-arts program. "But there's no question that our main focus is academics."

Teacher Joy Handsberry finishes scribbling long equations on an overhead projector for the 13 students in her AP calculus class. A poster of Einstein graces one wall, Elvis on black velvet, another.

"Any questions?" There are none. So one baseball-cap-clad student saunters over to the boom box by Handsberry's desk and pops in a classical music tape, background music for the series of calculus problems the students will work out in small groups.

"Cello rules," he declares, sliding into his chair. A debate ignites over what section of the school orchestra plays Chopin the best, but it eventually fizzles out as the students, one by one, dig into their math books.

In a regular humanities class of juniors and seniors, students discuss projects on their family histories and traditions. The teacher asks about religious traditions.

"Well, for us it's more being believers in Darwinism and evolution than real religion, you know, because my dad and grandfather were both scientists," one student says. Nearly everyone in the class came to Los Alamos from somewhere else, and nearly everyone has at least one parent who works at the lab.

Students here say they are expected to do well academically--by their peers, their teachers, and their parents.

"A lot of people think that getting a B is bad," says 8th grader Vickie Daley, 13, one of two girls in a science class for gifted and talented students at the middle school. "Some people in school just know too much. They know all about nuclear fission and stuff, and it scares us."

"Coners," short for conehead, is what Los Alamos students have been dubbed by some students from neighboring schools.

"A lot of us are just pretty normal as far as being smart and stuff," says 8th grader Michelle Carter, 14. "People call us coners up here, but not all of us are," she says, clicking the mouse at one of the computer lab's stations to check on stock prices for an economics project in social studies.

Competition is a fact of life. So much so that the high school stopped ranking its students in an effort to send a message to students who tally each other's grade-point averages and AP credits.

There are students here who plan to follow in their parents' footsteps, becoming scientists. But there are budding writers, artists, and "undecideds," too.

"There were kids you just knew were definitely going to be scientists. Their parents were. They had an aptitude for it. But then there were people who just wanted nothing to do with it," recalls James Rickman, who graduated from Los Alamos High School in 1981. He returned to town after college and now works in public relations for the lab. "The thing that was valued was just being good. Period," he says.

As far as the atomic history of Los Alamos goes, students say it mostly fades into the background, with the occasional joke about whether they glow in the dark or drink water that is contaminated with radiation.

But at times, what is normally background comes to the fore. Sometimes, the ground shakes in class from the explosions done on the lab grounds, says junior Dan Asay, 16, whose father works at the lab.

"It's like, 'oh yeah.' It just kind of reminds us of why we're all here," he says.

One thing students here seem to be acutely aware of is how the world off the Hill perceives them and covets much of what they have. Or how much emotion is stirred by the very existence of Los Alamos.

A few years ago, the words "Destroyers of the Universe" were spraypainted on a concrete barrier by a road in town. Many students don't wear their yellow and green "Hilltopper" letter jackets outside Los Alamos because they don't want to be harassed, Saccaro says. The district's school buses do not bear the Los Alamos name because when they did, they were vandalized. Some people here register their cars in neighboring Santa Fe County so Los Alamos won't appear on their license plates.

"It was always a big point, that this was not the real world. That this place was a kind of artificial island," Rickman explains. "It's a wacky place to live. But it's a pleasant quirkiness, not terrifying or anything."

"They were very demanding parents but very appreciative. And they wanted a scholarly and enriched curriculum, with plenty of music and arts as well as academics. We always had high standards, even back then. . . . I'd get scared sometimes. There were so many Ph.D.s, I'd always wonder: 'Am I using the right vocabulary?'"

--Jean Nereson

Many teachers in Los Alamos, transplants from elsewhere themselves, say they came knowing the community demanded high-quality education and had the resources to provide it.

"It almost feels like a dream world here," says Jonathan Lathrop, a high school social-studies teacher who came two years ago from Boulder, Colo. He has two planning periods a day, fewer than 25 students in a class, support staff to do the photocopying and typing, and involved parents who call him at home to ask questions.

But the high standards and involvement bring challenges, too.

Math teacher Joy Handsberry laughs when she recalls that some of her Algebra II students have come to class after solving homework problems with calculus techniques, skipping two years of math because the parents who helped them didn't realize it was out of sequence.

"It's not normal to be in a conference with a parent sitting there who has two or three Ph.D.s, and you're saying, 'I don't think your kid's doing as well in math as he should be.' It's tough for our staff," Saccaro says.

The relatively high teacher salaries in Los Alamos are a draw, though the cost of living on the Hill--particularly housing--is higher than in surrounding areas, and some teachers can't afford to live here.

Superintendent Art Blea of the neighboring Pojoaque schools has lost five employees to Los Alamos this year, including Janette Archuleta. A former middle school principal in Pojoaque, she now earns more in Los Alamos as a 4th-grade teacher with 17 students.

"People did more than raise their eyebrows when I told them I was going up there," says Archuleta, who is Hispanic and lives in Espanola. "A lot of people just lump them into 'Anglos' and assume they think a certain way. But they're just wrong. They really respect my culture and value differences."

In some sense, the schools here are like one more contractor providing services for the lab. And the lab uses the promise of top-notch schools as a selling point to recruit its scientists.

"They don't just take 'good' at face value. They want to know the metrics. Teacher salaries. Average sat scores. What colleges kids go to," says Frances Lee Menlove, the lab's director of human resources.

While most parents came here for jobs, the schools' reputation was a draw and, in some cases, it's what keeps families here. The proposed Energy Department cutbacks have people in town talking. Some say if the schools are stripped to the bare minimum that private schools will sprout up to take up the slack. Or parents, with their dedication to education, will volunteer to provide some of the "extras." Others predict a rash of home-schooling. Some simply can't believe the cuts are being discussed at all.

"Most people don't believe it's happening. They see it as just another false alarm," says Virginia Albright, who serves on the district's parent council and has sent seven children through the Los Alamos schools since moving here from Syracuse, N.Y., 22 years ago. "People just think things will stay the way they've always been. They're wrong."

Lee Delano's husband grew up here and recently returned for a job as a computer programmer at the lab. The Delanos moved from Dallas in search of a smaller, safer place to raise their four children and quality schools to match.

Delano and other parents describe Los Alamos as a supremely livable place and a tight-knit community. For a small town, it has a substantial cultural life: Opera, theater, and music abound. Many residents follow the example of Oppenheimer and his colleagues, taking advantage of the miles of wooded trails to hike, ski, or bike and unwind from the lab's stresses.

It's a place where many people still leave their doors unlocked. Where people scan the local police blotter to read about who ran a red light the night before. Where the sidewalks roll up by 9 p.m.

"It's a throwback to the way a lot of communities were 20 or 30 years ago," says Jeff Brown, a father of three who also works at the lab. "There's an innocence to it."

"I know [the federal government] can't take care of us forever. But we're really caught in the middle. I'm not sure what will happen now."

--Jean Nereson

The local historical museum exhibit "Transition to Normalcy" covers the period 1946-1960 in Los Alamos. But today, Los Alamos is still very much in transition. And it's hard to figure out just what normalcy is for a community where a guard tower, while padlocked, still sits on the road into town. Where the federal government controls at least part of the community's water, airport, and fire station. And you meander down streets named Trinity Drive and Oppenheimer Lane, past shops like The Black Hole.

Edward Grothus, a local icon known as Eduardo de Los Alamos or, simply, Crazy Ed, runs The Black Hole, an unheated 17,000-square-foot warehouse full of salvage equipment Grothus has collected as castoffs from the lab during its continual search for the latest technologies. The collection spews forth from metal bookcases, cardboard boxes, and rusty shopping carts in alphabetical order: alarms, blowers, capacitors, cryogenic containers, fans, filters, and, a bargain at $2 each, "atomic bomb detonator cables." His shop is a favorite haunt of artists from nearby Santa Fe, local students working up science projects, and movie producers seeking a certain look for films like "Silkwood," a 1983 movie based on Karen Silkwood, a whistleblower at a plutonium plant in Oklahoma who died under suspicious circumstances in 1974.

For 20 years, Grothus worked as a machinist in the lab. Then, in 1969 during the Vietnam War, he became an outspoken peace activist who railed against the nuclear industry--a rare bird in Los Alamos, he says.

"There are people who think I am the conscience of Los Alamos," the 72-year-old says as he squints up at the sun, which he proclaims the only good source of nuclear power. "Other people just detest me."

For now, Los Alamos is struggling to figure out its next move. Only 8 percent of the county's land is in private hands, so talks are under way to cede some Energy Department land to the county to help move Los Alamos closer to fiscal independence.

Though the lab's primary mission still deals in national security matters, the lab no longer designs or tests atomic bombs. Its primary mission is to "reduce the global nuclear danger" and clean up the legacy of the nuclear industry, according to a lab spokesman. It has diversified to include research in energy, nuclear security, environmental science, and supercomputing. The county, in turn, has taken steps to diversify its economy--plugging public and private initiatives that seek to draw to town high-tech and other companies that piggyback off the lab's work. And there's more to come, county officials say. Los Alamos may bill itself as a ski resort or tourist spot or retirement community.

"I'd hope that 20 or 30 years from now we will be more than a one-company town. But it's going to take that long to get there," says Fred Brueggeman, an assistant county administrator. "We still have a hard time convincing investors that we're not temporary."

Most here agree that the schools face a more difficult battle.

"You create a community like this, and you create dependence," Superintendent Anderson says, running his hand over a stack of papers documenting his district's unique history. "It's hard to break out of that. And it's all we've ever known."

The question is not whether the Energy Department's payments will be phased out, but rather by how much and how fast, says Paul Dickman, who represents the Energy Department in its negotiations with the county and the schools. And even if Congress and the department decide to continue the payments, it's unlikely that they will go solely to Los Alamos. Los Alamos does take in students from neighboring districts, as space permits. But because many of the lab's support workers live off the Hill and send their children to schools off the Hill, neighboring districts to Los Alamos have argued that they, too, serve the lab and deserve some financial support in return.

"We have a mission to terminate," Dickman says. "But we also realize that it doesn't do any good to throw a community into chaos."

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