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LAUSD readies 2 sites for students escaping Porter Ranch gas leak

Mike Szymanski | January 4, 2016

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Michelle King and Mike Romero at the new Porter Ranch school on the Northridge Middle School campus.

Two new school sites are expected to be completely ready by Wednesday for 1,850 LA Unified students relocated from the methane gas leak in Porter Ranch. That will give the district time to work out any last-minute glitches before the students and faculty move in next week.

School board member Scott Schmerelson, Local District Northwest Superintendent Vivian Ekchian and acting school superintendent Michelle King toured the sites this morning to see progress made over the two-week winter break.

“This has been an amazing outcome from such a catastrophe,” Schmerelson said. “They have accomplished so much in such a little time. I can’t believe that anyone wouldn’t be excited to see what has been done, but no doubt there will be those who will complain. This is beyond my wildest expectations.”

Schmerelson acknowledged that he heard from some parents over the holiday break, objecting to the schools being moved while the gas leak gets repaired. But an overwhelming majority of people, he said, wanted the schools to be relocated.

As he stood at a newly-paved courtyard, he counted the number of power poles that were installed around the new 36 bungalows added to the grounds of Northridge Middle School to accommodate 1,100 K through 8th grade students from Porter Ranch Community School, about eight miles away. About 750 K-5th grade students from Castlebay Lane Charter will share a school site at Sunny Brae Elementary School, about 7.5 miles from their previous school site.

“There was a real sense of community shown by these schools,” Schmerelson said. “They wanted to stay together, so we found a way to keep them all together. It would have been easier to move some of the grades to one school, and some to another, but the community wanted the schools to remain together, and we found a way to do that.”

Ekchian, who attended dozens of meetings with the community to get feedback, said she is turning the move into a learning experience for all the students and is incorporating it into their curriculum at the schools.

“This is an instructional moment for them,” she said. “It exposes the children to change, and what happens when things occur overnight that will change your life. We are incorporating science into this, the environment and sustainability. And they are doing it where there is not any kind of odor.”

Although methane has no scent, the odor additives made some people nauseous and some residents complained of headaches and nosebleeds. Ekchian said that since the board decided to move the students, some of the teachers have rescinded requests for transfers to another school, and students who have asked for independent studies or school transfers are now coming back to their home schools. She said she also expects the large number of substitute teacher requests to go down, too.

“It is as if a magic carpet has moved their whole school to a new location,” said Ekchian, adding that the move was unprecedented in the school district — not even the 1994 Northridge earthquake led to so many students relocating. “This has never been done before to such a school, and in only a few weeks.”


Vivian Ekchian and Scott Schmerelson tour schools.

Desks, teacher’s materials, bookcases, even class projects have all been relocated to the new school sites. Students will have new carpeting, internet connection, computers and everything else they had at their former school site, said project manager Mike Romero, Chief Operating Officer of LAUSD.

“It is important for the surroundings to be as familiar as the students are used to having,” Romero said. “We are trying to make it as least disruptive as possible.”

Construction crews worked for 20 hours every day over the holiday break except for Christmas and New Year’s Day, Romero said. He estimated more than 75 workers were at the middle school at any one time and about 50 worked the elementary school site. The gas company responsible for the leak is expected to pay for all the construction, moves and disruptions to LAUSD, and officials are compiling the costs they have encurred.

Principals from the schools figured out staggered school times, and different loading areas for the schools. The gym at the middle school will be shared at staggered times, and an environmental, health and safety officer from the district will be stationed full time at both sites. According to an interoffice letter from King, she coordinated 17 different divisions of the district to get the project started.

King, who is overseeing the district since Ramon Cortines retired at the end of the year, said she was impressed with the progress, and she greeted and hugged many of the school personnel taking her on tours of the sites. King suggested that names of the teachers be on each of the classroom doors greeting the students to the new rooms.

Free bus transportation and accommodations for the after-school YMCA activities at Porter Ranch as well as the regular Beyond the Bell programs will continue.

Even if the gas leak is fixed earlier than the projected few months expected, LA Unified does not plan to move the children back to their former facilities before the end of the school year in June.

Next Monday, Jan. 11 is when most of the traditional district schools begin in the new year, but the first day will be a no-pupil day at Porter Ranch Community School and Castlebay Lane Charter. Parents will be able to go on tours in the afternoon, with doors opening to students the following day.

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