$350 million high school finally opens in LA

By: AP
By: AP

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A decade behind schedule, a $350 million downtown high school finally opened on Wednesday after years of environmental, seismic and legal troubles.

"We've been waiting a long time to get this," said Uriel Rivera, an 18-year-old senior at the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center. "A lot of people in the community were supposed to graduate from here, but they didn't. I thought it was going to be the same for me."

Rivera was among more than 2,400 students who streamed into the school on its first day - long after what had been expected to be a late 1990s debut of an education showplace to relieve sorely overcrowded classrooms.

Much of what was then called the Belmont Learning Center was already constructed before fears grew about toxic gases rising from an old oil field upon which it was built.

Construction was halted in 2000, then resumed in 2002 only to be thwarted again, this time by the discovery of an earthquake fault that crosses the site.

Lengthy investigations by the county district attorney's office, the city attorney and the California attorney general found no criminal wrongdoing, but in 2003 District Attorney Steve Cooley labeled the project "a public works disaster of biblical proportions."

The school became a symbol of bureaucratic ineptitude and wasted taxpayer money. The ensuing scandal swept a district superintendent and almost half the school board out of office.

"I feel a little emotional that it took so long. These seniors were in kindergarten when this was being built," Principal Scott Braxton said as he surveyed the sprawling school. "But it's finally here."

The school resembles a college campus, with several classroom buildings surrounding a landscaped courtyard. It boasts a gym with capacity to hold 3,000, a large dance studio with cushioned maple floors, 480 underground parking spaces - and a $17 million toxic gas mitigation system that costs $250,000 a year to operate.

School grounds are dotted with tall light poles topped with mushroom-like caps - vents to let underground methane and hydrogen sulfide gases escape. Sensors monitor subterranean levels of the gases. When a gas buildup is detected, a blower is activated to push out the gases more quickly.

Students at the school choose among six smaller, autonomous "learning communities" that are focused around career themes, including languages, visual arts and humanities, business and finance, computer science and leadership. The Los Angeles Unified School District also is using the curriculum model at some large high schools.

"It's a paradigm shift," Braxton said. "It gives us a chance to personalize high school for the kids."

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