L.A. Scurries To Find Space For Students

By Ann Bradley — February 02, 1994 5 min read

Still shaken by a devastating earthquake, Los Angeles students, teachers, and administrators returned to school last week as optimistic district officials made plans for accommodating students whose schools will need extensive repairs.

The Jan. 17 earthquake, which measured 6.6 on the Richter scale, forced the Los Angeles Unified School District to cancel classes for six days. The temblor, which hit hardest in the Northridge area, damaged half of the district’s 640 schools, causing an estimated $700 million in damage. (See Education Week, Jan. 26, 1994.)

Most of the schools that remained closed last week were awaiting repairs or checks to their gas, electricity, and water lines. Only a few schools were judged to be in need of major structural repairs that would keep them closed indefinitely.

When classes resumed on Jan. 25, 76 schools were still closed, meaning that 65,000 students stayed home. But by the end of last week, officials expected to open all but about 25 schools, and they predicted that by the middle of this week, all but the most severely damaged schools would be usable.

The district’s goal, said Shel Erlich, a spokesman for the L.A.U.S.D., is “to reopen on the same campuses to the greatest extent possible, as soon as possible.’' At some schools, that will mean adding portable classrooms, some of which are being sent to the area by the state of California.

The worst-hit schools are in the western portion of the San Fernando Valley, near the epicenter of the quake. Maintenance employees, teachers, and administrators worked long hours to reshelve books, pick up spilled supplies, mop up water, and repair fallen light fixtures in order to open schools last week.

Although most buildings were safe enough for students to return--at least to some classrooms--many will need expensive repairs to buckled tile floors, cracked walls, warped walkways, and portable classrooms that were jolted off their foundations.

In the meantime, students may have to take classes in auditoriums, multipurpose rooms, and computer laboratories.

“It’s been a remarkable week,’' said Mark Slavkin, a member of the board of education who represents part of the area hardest hit by the quake. “Everyone feels much more optimistic now than right after the quake.’'

Federal Assistance

A large part of the optimism of district officials stemmed from the pledges of financial assistance made by President Clinton, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the U.S. Department of Education. The President has requested $6.6 billion in quake relief from Congress, including $700 million to repair Los Angeles schools and $245 million for the additional operating costs for schools because of the quake.

And in a show of Administration support, Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Hyde Park Elementary School late last week.

The Education Department sent $7 million to the district last week to pay for counseling, transportation, food, and extended-day services. Another $3 million was to be made available to other California districts affected by the quake.

Despite assurances that school buildings were safe, some parents were hesitant to leave their young children, and there was some confusion about which schools were open.
As a result, attendance at schools in the western part of the San Fernando Valley was between 60 percent and 65 percent, according to a district spokesman. Normal attendance is 90 percent to 95 percent. Schools in parts of the sprawling district that were not affected by the quake reported attendance rates of about 80 percent.

The immediate concern in the Valley, Mr. Slavkin said, was figuring out how to communicate to families living in shelters and tents in parks that schools were open and safe. “The services are running fairly smoothly--buses, food service--but getting the word out is a challenge,’' he said.

Returning to school has not been easy for staff members either, many of whom lost their homes or belongings in the quake.

‘Trying To Be Creative’

At James Monroe High School in North Hills, a few miles from the epicenter, three teachers whose homes were destroyed were on the job last week to welcome students.

“Every teacher is here,’' Alice Parrish, the assistant principal, said. “We have teachers who live in the Santa Clarita Valley who took four hours to get home last night, and they’re back again today.’'

The first day of classes, about 1,200 of the school’s 2,800 students showed up, the assistant principal said, but attendance was up to 2,000 the next day. The first thing students did was practice earthquake drills, including dropping under their desks and evacuating to the baseball field.

Fourteen junior and senior high schools in the San Fernando Valley were still serving as Red Cross shelters last week. That meant students could not use gymnasiums, multipurpose rooms, and playing fields.

Last week, district officials were mulling plans for what to do with students whose schools will have to be closed for extensive repairs.

Julie Korenstein, a member of the board of education, said it was likely that the worst-hit high schools would change their calendars and not reopen until March. Others might use split sessions to accommodate all of their students, depending on how many of their classrooms are unusable.

One of the most badly damaged schools is John F. Kennedy High School, where the administration building was destroyed.

The Kennedy High staff is determined to keep its students together, said Helen Bernstein, the president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, who visited there last week.

Ms. Bernstein said some teachers visited their students who were living in parks to check on their safety, while others called students with homework assignments while schools were closed.

The Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, a group that is promoting a reform plan for the district, last week joined with Mayor Richard Riordan to convene a team of experts to help resolve the district’s facilities crisis.

The group expects to lobby hard for a plan devised earlier by LEARN that would include leasing space for schools and opening schools in minimalls and commercial buildings so that students could go to school closer to their homes.

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 1994 edition of Education Week as L.A. Scurries To Find Space For Students