Despite costly stumbles, L.A. Unified’s 20-year construction project comes to an end with opening of Maywood campus

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There was a time when Los Angeles schools were overcrowded to the bursting point and officials seemed utterly incapable of building a single school.

The nation’s second-largest school system was forced to operate many campuses year-round, which made it hard to maintain order and cleanliness, cut 17 days off the academic year and deprived some students of access to honors classes and electives.

But after several costly stumbles, the L.A. Unified School District turned things around as it built 131 modern campuses.

The opening of the $160-million Maywood Center for Enriched Studies in southeast Los Angeles County, as a new school year began Tuesday, marks the end of the line for the country’s largest new school construction project, which cost $10 billion and took 20 years. The arrival of the new campus also means that Bell High School, the final district campus operating year-round, at last has returned to a traditional schedule.

Like other new schools, this finished campus is supposed to double as a community center. The central classroom building can be secured while other portions remain accessible to the public. A health clinic opens directly to the outside. So do the auditorium, sports fields and a library that students can use until 7 p.m.

The library exemplifies thoughtful design. The stacks in the middle of the room don’t rise more than chest high, allowing for easier supervision by a limited staff. The front wall is glass, with an electric sunshade that can lower as needed. There’s also a skylight, although the room can be made completely dark for films or slide presentations. Couches and chairs have built-in power outlets and USB ports for cellphones. (There were no smartphones when the construction project began.)

To encourage students to gather, much of the furniture — in different heights and styles — can be moved around easily. One of the library entrances opens onto a small amphitheater. In addition to the main cafeteria, students can congregate in three smaller dining areas.

To provide security without the look of a penitentiary, the buildings themselves form much of the perimeter and the remaining fencing looks more artful than foreboding. Fracture-resistant glass replaces burglar bars.

The district also learned lessons about economy and efficiency. The floors, for example, are a concrete composite with a shiny finish, easier and less expensive to maintain than tile.

The exterior design and roof drainage channel rainwater into drought-tolerant landscaping, where pollutants can filter out before water enters public storm drains.

Another lesson the district learned is that it could take a beating for taxpayer-funded campuses that critics called extravagant, such as the Robert F. Kennedy complex on the site of the old Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was assassinated. That design recreated features of the hotel in the new school.

Most of the new district schools are state of the art inside, with colorful but architecturally unremarkable exteriors.

“With public schools you’re trying to get the most you can for the dollar,” said Ben Levin, principal and senior architect for DLR Group, which designed the Maywood school in hues that change from one building to another.

“People are blown away by the color and it’s such a simple thing,” Levin said. “Color is something that’s free.”

Homeowners will be paying off bonds for the school construction well beyond 2040. Right now, it costs them $131 for each $100,000 of assessed property value.

In another era, Maywood might have been packed, but it had more seats than needed to return Bell High to a traditional calendar. So the district made the new campus a regional magnet school, open to students from across the city, in the mold of the popular Los Angeles Center for Enriched Students in Mid-City. Like LACES, the new “MaCES” serves students in grades six through 12.

The concept appears to have worked. Principal Gabriel Duran says he now has a waiting list.


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