By Melissa Pamer, Staff Writer | Long Beach Press Telegram
Staff Photo: Robert Casillas-- The Port of Los Angeles High School recently had their five-year charter renewed and will have their first senior class this year. The school has begun a 13 room expansion with state of the computer and science rooms. Biology teacher Tim Dikdan explains lesson during summer school class.
Aug 5, 2008 - Port of Los Angeles High School has been hectic in recent weeks as the charter school prepares for September, when it will welcome a record number of freshmen and its first senior class.
Brand-new textbooks are stacked on tables and boxes of fetal pig specimens await biology-class dissection.
New teachers, needed to instruct the incoming class of about 270 ninth-graders, are arriving on campus. Summer-school students dodge workers adding a fresh coat of paint to hallways.
On the second floor of the downtown San Pedro office building the school occupies, a construction crew hurries to erect walls for new classrooms within a huge, empty space.
"It's really kind of frantic in a way. We're always playing catch-up," said school Executive Director Jim Cross.
Since the maritime-themed school first opened in 2005 - when it held classes outdoors for four months at Cabrillo Beach Youth Camp while renovations were completed at its campus - it has had its share of struggles.
Now, despite some lingering worries, particularly about funding, the college-preparatory school appears to be finding its way.
"It's been wonderful to see a dream and a vision that took us eight years to turn into a reality finally coming into existence," said Camilla Townsend, president of the charter's board of trustees.
"The groundwork is laid. The basics are there," said Townsend, who is also the chief executive officer of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce, where the idea for the port-focused school originated.
Last month, the school's charter was renewed for five years by the Los Angeles Unified School District. That came after years of wrangling that resulted in November in a lease with the Port of Los Angeles that gives the school an option before 2012 to buy the office building that's become its campus.
At the beginning of this year, gleaming new biology and chemistry labs, with $250,000 worth of equipment, were unveiled. And now about 630 students - who pay nothing to attend the independent public charter - are expected in the coming year. The school's first-ever graduation will be held next June.
"It's a legitimate high school, a very nice high school compared to most," said Tom Scotti, the school's newly promoted assistant principal.
Scotti was one of the initial four instructors at the charter who taught at the beach. In the beginning, school officials had to "reinvent the wheel," he said.
Now, the school is gaining stability - and recognition. The son of former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn is a student at POLA High.
"You go somewhere and you mention the name, and people know. We're out there now," Scotti said. "We still have a lot more growing to do."
On Wednesday, the school will hold its first "POLAHS Night," a combination pep rally and information session for parents and students to be held at the Warner Grand Theatre. At the event, about 17 new teachers will be introduced and the charter will accept a $50,000 check from the Annenberg Foundation.
But despite progress, challenges remain for the campus.
Funding has not yet been secured for the $1.5 million expansion, which may not be completed before classes start. Principal Marie Collins left in June before her contract was up - a "personnel matter" that officials wouldn't discuss. A search is under way for Collins' replacement. Meanwhile, the school's promised maritime curriculum, funded by the port, has only partly been implemented and remains under development.
The school "still has a long way to go," Townsend said. "It's on the right track and we're very excited."
Last week, just over a month before the beginning of the fall semester, the second-story classrooms remained white shells of drywall. Construction debris littered the unfinished concrete floors.
It's not clear whether the work will be done in time, and Cross said he's worried about where to put students if building is not finished.
He looked at the half of the open, 32,000-square-foot floor where classrooms aren't yet built. He may have to set up classes at opposite ends of the space, he said.
But that's not the main concern. The school still hasn't obtained enough money to pay for the work.
"We're building before we have the money to build," Cross said.
Funding remains the primary challenge, said both Cross and Townsend, who are looking for grant money. Bank loans are also being sought, but that's proved difficult since lenders are reluctant to fund schools without any equity, Cross said.
That challenge is typical for charter schools, which often struggle to find - and pay for - adequate space, advocates say.
This year, Cross said the school will begin the effort to raise another $8 million to $9 million to buy its building.
"Our biggest challenge is raising the big bucks," Cross said.
At the same time, the school will be refining its maritime curriculum, which for the first time next year will have two requirements: a ninth-grade Port of Los Angeles history class and an 11th-grade port operations and environmental science course. Most seniors will have maritime-related internships this year.
Teachers are encouraged to integrate trade- and port-related topics into regular subjects, Cross said. Engineering, marine science and international trade courses may soon be offered.
"That's like the frosting on the cake," Townsend said of the maritime curriculum. "It's being implemented. It's starting small."
The school's theme has yet to be a draw for its diverse student body, which comes largely from LAUSD campuses in the Harbor Area, but also from Torrance, Carson and Long Beach.
For Townsend, overcoming years of hurdles to achieve a full complement of high-schoolers is a marvel in itself.
"I haven't even had a chance to let it sink in that it's up and running," she said.