Tuesday, July 08, 2008

San Pedro Science Center: FADED, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

By Melissa Pamer, Daily Breeze Staff Writer

John Zavalney, the San Pedro Science Center's former adviser, holds Lumpy, a green iguana housed at the facility. Zavalney is working on plans to rebuild the 3.5-acre center, slowly becoming overgrown and run-down because of budget cuts, with an environmental theme. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)

7/8/08 - A year after the San Pedro Science Center was saved from the threat of closure, waist-high weeds choke the facility's orchards. Work on the once-productive vegetable garden has been abandoned and the farm-like center has a forlorn feel.

One of dozens of animals at the Los Angeles Unified School District educational facility, a 500-pound sow known as Ophelia grunted eagerly at the sight of a recent visitor. The pig took shelter from the sun under a makeshift covering the district can't afford to replace with a permanent structure.

"It's technically open," said former science adviser John Zavalney of the 3 1/2 acre facility, which has provided a hands-on learning experience to students for more than four decades but has seen a decline in recent years.

John Zavalney holds a king snake housed at the center. The snake was confiscated from a smuggler at LAX; many such creatures are handed over to the center for care. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)

"Maintenance is an issue," he said, standing amid the overgrowth near a stand of pomegranate trees at the center, which is in a residential neighborhood of northwest San Pedro.

Zavalney was one of two advisers based at the site who regularly led student field trips until district budget cuts forced the elimination of both positions last summer. An animal enthusiast who taught students for more than 20 years in a classroom called "The Zoo," Zavalney was transferred to a local district office where he worked largely on teacher training.

Since last August, the center's collection of bungalows and storage facilities has been run by four science technicians who haven't been able to

adequately maintain the grounds, Zavalney said. Teachers who came by for field trips in the past year, he said, had to guide their own site tours without the benefit of the two educational advisers who know about the animals, which range from a 32-year-old Shetland pony to a variety of exotic and rare reptiles.

But, with Zavalney as the center's champion, it looks like things are about to change.

Zavalney, who plans to return in the fall as a staff educator at the facility, is refining a plan to remake the site as an environmental education center for students and the broader community.

The proposal includes a "smart garden" and composting site, a "green" demonstration house, an amphitheater, an American Indian cultural area, a new barn and a facility for the many rescued animals at the center.

"This is it; this is my dream," Zavalney said. "I just know it's going to happen."

Though Zavalney's plan for the center - to be renamed the Center for Sustainability, Environmental Education and Service Learning - has the backing of district officials, it's still not clear where the money would come from.

Last year, the loss of a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation forced the district to close all but two of its science centers, which once numbered 12. And on June 24, the board passed a tight budget that accounted for $350 million in expected state funding cuts - leaving little room to increase funding for the San Pedro center.

Zavalney's own return to the facility is being funded by an outside grant from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

"It's a start," said school board member Richard Vladovic of the initial funding.

Since his election last year, Vladovic - who represents the Harbor Area, along with Carson, Gardena and Lomita - has been an enthusiastic backer of the center. He said he endorsed Zavalney's efforts and hoped for a state-of-the-art facility.

"I want an environmentally sustainable center where kids know how we're going to have to live in the 21st century to survive," said Vladovic, who lives one block from the center. "You can't learn that in the classroom. You need that science experience."

Vladovic, Zavalney and school officials foresee the district obtaining financial backing from local corporations and nonprofit environmental groups. Otherwise, money to complete the transformation would have to come from a new bond measure - or from a board vote to transfer funds from another district pot of money, Vladovic said.

The effort is in line with a state mandate to increase environmental education in public schools - and it is within the scope of work of a new district committee dedicated to sustainability, Zavalney said. A curriculum for the state's Education and the Environment Initiative, the product of 2003 and 2005 legislation, is in development and should be completed by 2010.

"We want to be ahead of that and start teaching now," Zavalney said.

If realized, the effort would end a period of neglect for the San Pedro Science Center, which district officials said had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

A 2006 outside evaluation of the site - along with other, now-closed science centers - stated the San Pedro site "lacks the adequate funding necessary to leverage the educational power of the facility."

The report, issued by IBM under a contract with the district, called the San Pedro center "the `jewel' of the LAUSD science program" and stated, "No other such science facility exists in urban public education."

Todd Ullah, the district's director of secondary science programs, said "dramatic" cuts were responsible for the center's decline.

"It's unfortunate that due to budget constraints you can't always do it all," Ullah said.

Getting Zavalney back at the site - and bringing in more children for field trips - is crucial for getting outside support for the plan, which should take about five years to realize fully, Ullah said. The agreement between the DWP and LAUSD that will fund Zavalney's job should be approved soon, he said.

District officials met Thursday with Zavalney at the center and discussed making the site's existing structures more environmentally friendly and reducing energy consumption - a first phase of the plan. Representatives of a regional environmental education group and urban forest advocacy nonprofit TreePeople were there as well.

Over the summer, the site will be prepared for the October groundbreaking of Los Angeles County's smart gardening and compost demonstration site, which is moving from the South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

As for Zavalney, a gleam in his eyes shows he's ready for his brainchild to begin taking shape.

"I never turned my keys in," Zavalney said last Tuesday, opening the door to a bungalow library full of slides of tiny baby octopuses and other sea creatures.

"I knew I was coming back."

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