School officials said last week that construction of a small, “thematic” high school on a vacant 10.3-acre site that straddles Signal Hill and Long Beach is expected to get underway by October of this year, but so far it appears not everyone is on board.
Some residents who live near the property, bounded by Hill Street, Obispo Avenue and Redondo Avenue, voiced concerns during a preliminary meeting with Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) officials on Wednesday, April 16 that the new school may attract some “riffraff” to the mostly suburban neighborhood.
“No matter how you sugarcoat it, this is bringing in all the gang members from north Long Beach to this area where we spent a lot of money on our house,” said Steve Tanouchev, a resident of Aubry at Alamitos Ridge, a community of single-family homes that was built next to the site nearly two years ago.
LBUSD officials, however, tried to reassure residents during the meeting at Jessie Nelson middle school in Signal Hill that the new high school is being designed to pull the “best and greatest students” in the district with a new focus on teaching occupations specific to the Long Beach area.
“We are concerned about safety, and we are concerned about our students, and we want them to be the best that they are,” said Tova Corman, executive director of facilities, development and planning for LBUSD. “We try to make sure that we assist where we need to assist. And, if there are problems, we address those problems… I think it will be a great addition to the community.”
LBUSD had originally planned to build an elementary school at the site, but the district changed its plans nearly three years ago to instead build a small high school as the needs of the district have changed over time, school officials said.
The district experienced an influx of students in the 1990s that required many high schools to build “portable” classrooms. It was thought there would be a demand for elementary schools, however the district’s plans shifted once student enrollment dropped because of a “change in demographics,” school officials said.
The new high school, to be called Browning High School, would include no more than 840 students in grades 9 through 12 as opposed to the elementary school, which would have had about 1,400 students. The $44-million project is the second of four new small high schools planned using funding from Measure K, a bond measure passed in 2008. McBride High School in east Long Beach was the first to open last year.
School officials said the new state-of-the-art high school is part of the district’s master-plan goals to create “21st century learning environments for the next generation” by reducing the size of high schools and focusing on specific disciplines as a “pathway” to prepare students for college and future careers.
Browning High School, for instance, would offer courses in food service/food science, hospitality, tourism and recreation.
“These are the areas that are up-and-coming, especially in a city like Long Beach, where tourism is a huge part of the economy,” said Diana Craighead, vice president of LBUSD’s Board of Education, during the meeting. “It’s not that this school is going to be attracting a different type of student. I do want to assure you that we have high standards for all of our students in all of our schools.”
As an example, McBride High School, which offers emphasis in health/medical, public services/forensics and engineering, requires that students submit essays and maintain certain grade-point averages to be admitted.
Still, explanations provided by school officials didn’t seem to appease residents.
Tanouchev criticized the school district’s plans, calling the new high school a “vocational school.” He added that a high school attracts a different crowd of students than an elementary school, adding that surrounding property values might decline as a result.
Lance Woods, a local real-estate agent and husband of Signal Hill Councilmember Lori Woods, applauded the district’s educational plans but sympathized with Tanouchev, adding that some residents are worried that students might venture up Hill Street into Signal Hill’s hilltop community, which has already experienced incidents of vandalism, including reports of people throwing rocks into windows.
“We have beautiful trails and beautiful parks in Signal Hill, and I can’t tell you how much people want to graffiti it and bang them up,” he said. “Now we’re going to have 840 kids. How many of these kids are going to get released … come up the hill and go into those neighborhoods and jump in and go into the pools and do all of this?”
Signal Hill city officials voiced their own concerns.
Vice Mayor Larry Forester said he plans to “fight” LBUSD on approving a negative declaration rather than an environmental impact report (EIR), which was required for the scrapped elementary-school proposal.
“The parameters have changed enough that I would probably ask for a full EIR and not a negative [declaration],” he told the LBUSD officials. “I would fight you on that, [on behalf of] the City of Signal Hill, just so you know.”
In an interview with the Signal Tribune, Forester said his “biggest concern” is the traffic impacts to the four-way intersection at Hill Street and Obispo Avenue, recommending a traffic light be installed.
Corman noted that student drop-off at the high school’s entrance would be along Obispo Avenue, just before Hill Street, which would be widened and have a new sidewalk.
She added that the school’s sports fields, which would mainly be used for soccer and track-and-field in addition to possibly some tennis and basketball courts, would face Redondo Avenue. The school’s sports fields and gymnasium would be smaller than those at larger high schools that have their own football teams, Corman said.
Additionally, the new high school will include a library, an administration building and a multi-purpose room, in addition to a central courtyard, various laboratories and 31 classrooms. A covered amphitheater and dining area are expected to provide common areas for student gatherings.
Another concern, however, was the school district’s plans to clean up oil-well contamination on the site.
Nghi Nghiem, a consultant for LBUSD who is managing the project, confirmed that the site currently has one abandoned oil well and an oil pipeline, which the district plans to remediate through the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).
But Colleen Doan, Signal Hill’s associate planner, indicated during the meeting the need for the school district to get certification from California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), which in 2010 changed its regulations for signing off on developments proposed over or near abandoned oil wells.
“I’m just hoping that you got [the certification] a couple years ago before [DOGGR] changed their rules because it’s harder to get certification now– almost impossible,” Doan said.
Corman said the district plans to get all state-permit approvals in the next few months after receiving formal comments from the cities of Signal Hill and Long Beach.
By next month, the district is expected to start the first phase of the project, which will include site preparation. Trucks and heavy equipment are expected to haul dirt and materials between the hours of 7am and 7pm Mondays through Fridays and between 9am and 6pm on Saturdays, with no work being done on Sundays.
School officials said they expect the entire project to be completed by September 2016.