New Campus Offers New Problems

(photos by John Mattera)

Students who left behind 75-year-old San Pedro High School to attend its new $80 million annex at Angel’s Gate that officially opened in August say they have faced a myriad of emotions leaving their flagship school.

Introduced with great fanfare at a dedication ceremony last month, the John M. and Muriel Olguin Campus – which was built to relieve overcrowding at San Pedro High – has some students saying they are nervous, scared and delighted all at same time to attend the $80 million facility at the Upper Fort MacArthur Reservation.

The state-of-the-art-campus comes complete with ocean breezes, a competitive swimming pool, a gymnasium and a 780-seat amphitheater. It also comes with a history of raising public ire from some nearby residents, many of whom wrangled so hard against the complex from its inception that they won Los Angeles Unified School District concessions such as no night lighting and an attendance cap of 800 students.

While quiet for awhile, the rumpus resumed immediately once the school opened Aug. 14 when it became clear that one concession school officials made would be broken – the use of Alma Street which skirts the west side of the campus.

Using busses along Alma is a must, explains Sandra Martin-Alvarenga, the school’s magnet coordinator. Each day, two busses do round-trips three times to the flagship campus, a straight shot from Alma to 17th Street. Students at both schools can take advantage of courses or extracurricular activities where they are offered.

The ride is five to eight minutes verses using the Gaffey and 37th Street exit “which is a meandering ride” out of Angel’s Gate and difficult for the buses to navigate, Martin-Alvarenga says. “We’ve got to get these kids to school on time. We are also trying to optimize the campus. We’re not an exclusive school. We want to give as many students to come here we can.”

The use of Alma reignited long simmering tensions between some neighbors and the school. Homeowner Dan Malstrom, one of many residents perturbed with this new twist and fears there’s more to come, argues this just stirs “the residual hate” that Los Angeles Unified provoked to build the campus – an action that upset many in the neighborhood who feared the annex would decline property values, take views and endanger the safety of the neighborhood.

Concerns about the safety of Alma, a somewhat narrow residential street, is another reason the artery shouldn’t be used, they argued. Malstrom has collected 200 signatures from surrounding homeowners against the opening of Alma Street – even for the busses.

“LAUSD made a promise that they would keep that gate closed,” Malstrom contends. He adds he’s a product of the magnet and believes in the school. “They need to keep that promise now so the community can heal. If they don’t keep this promise what’s next?”

He continues, “There’s more to this issue than just the busses that people don’t understand. It’s not just about two busses that pass by six times a day. It is also about other school traffic, such as delivery and commercial trucks as well as other vehicles using the gate when it’s left open. It’s about safety versus convenience.”

Now entering the fray are area residents whose children attend the Olguin campus. They want to drive in at nearby Alma to drop off their children rather than detour around to Gaffey Street – an issue Principal Jeanette Stevens has yet to determine. Stevens oversees both campuses.

The new state-of-the-art San Pedro High School campus annex comes complete with ocean breezes, a competitive swimming pool, a gymnasium and a 780-seat amphitheater.

Having attended numerous past community meetings often punctuated with a drive from residents to prevent the school’s development, Coastal Neighborhood Council president June Burlingame Smith says she’s not sure where the latest issue will head.

“If both sides are willing to listen to one another respectfully, and all options are on the table from the beginning of the dialogue, and if both sides are honest, a solution can and will be found,” Smith says. “If one side says there is no room to negotiate, then it will be usual trench warfare.”

Still up for debate is whether the school should open both the pedestrian gate and allow all vehicles to use the Alma entry. Slugging through that while trying to get a new campus off the ground isn’t easy, Stevens says.

“For the most part, the Olguin campus is up and running smoothly,” Stevens says. “There are issues around the Alma gate. However, most of the small problems have been solved. Students are in their fifth week of school. Classes are settled, sports are in full swing at both campuses and the shuttles are making their routes in a routine manner. Now we are fine tuning to ensure that each campus experiences the luxuries of the other.”

While adults argue about the school operations, students are deciding what they think of their new digs. San Pedro’s marine magnet and police academy are housed at the new annex because they draw students from across Los Angeles – the most equitable way the district could determine who attends.

Twin girls who will finish there as seniors offer opposing perspectives. “I have never been in a school that’s so nice and privileged,” says Jessica Martin, 17. “I definitely feel sorry it’s only for a certain amount of kids and I feel we are being segregated. Some of our magnet kids already have big heads and this is going to make them bigger.”

Natalie Martin, Jessica’s twin sister, thinks differently. While she believes it will be challenging – especially shuttling back and forth for classes between the two schools – she likes change. “I did enjoy San Pedro High, but I welcome the change,” she says. “I like this school. It’s eco-friendly. This school is open and beautiful and colorful. I feel I deserve to be here. I worked hard for it in my classes.”

San Pedro High will continue to act as the mother ship for the annex. While students worry about schedules and shuttling between schools, teacher Jennifer Ritz says with any new school there will be blips in the chart. “Every good system has to go through a period of trial and error,” says Ritz, an advanced placement world history teacher who said she too will miss the flagship campus. “Everything that’s successful takes time.”

Mother Carolyn Johnson, and her daughter, senior Maureen “Mo,” 17, a competitive rower, were pleased when they toured the campus. “Even though there’s inconvenience and transition, I’m excited for her,” Johnson says of her daughter. “It’s new and exciting and it has a new energy.”

Several Police Academy seniors hope the new campus will put them on better footing than their old high school where they often were embarrassed to wear their uniforms and believed other students considered them less than equals.

Cadet Jose Hernandez, 17, says, “At our old school, other kids were like, ‘You are not part of us.’ It was awkward just going in your uniform. It’s just a stereotype that we’re not smart.”

For once, “It’s more like our school,” says Cadet Jeremy J. Garcia, 17, also a senior. “We’ll be able to do a lot more. We’ll have our own field. Our own obstacle course. We’ll even have our own role call room. Before we were just sideliners.” spt