Winter 2007 – Volume 7 Number 3

Appeal To The Highest Common Denominator

By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Copyright 2007, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with Permission.

From Chatsworth to El Segundo, private schools are spending an estimated $600 million in a building boom that reflects the strong demand for their services and the intense competition among their ranks.
Brentwood School is building an aquatics center that looks like a modern equivalent of the Greco-Roman baths of ancient Alexandria. Windward School, also on the Westside, is completing a new library with digital media studios and an indoor-outdoor reading area with a fireplace. Loyola High School near downtown recently opened a new science hall equipped with the most advanced instruments, and, across the new commons, it is restoring its historic Jesuit residence hall.

(Left) The new $18.5 million Raymond + Esther Kabbaz High School for Le Lycée Fraçais de Los Angeles, designed by Pica + Sullivan Architects, is currently under
construction.   Photograph by Randall Michelson

The building frenzy is being driven by aging facilities, new teaching models that call for informal classroom settings, space for group projects and hands-on activities, and the need for new technology. It also is aimed, of course, at keeping these schools competitive. There is an assumption that private schools — where tuition can top $26,000 annually — can provide the best of everything. School leaders say they increasingly are expected to meet students’ diverse needs, with more specialized staff, multiple counselors, psychologists, deans of students, and parent, alumni and community advisors who all need offices and meeting space. “One of the factors at play is that the nature of education and learning is changing; expectations are shifting, with an impact on fiscal plans and technology,” said James McManus, executive director of the California Association of Independent Schools.

Some educators, even those involved in new building projects, decry the “facilities race,” arguing that the millions going into these projects might be better spent on teacher salaries and financial aid. And the capital campaigns can be particularly dauting to parents already paying high tuitions and being tapped for annual fundraising as well. But schools say they are under pressure from parents, alumni, trustees and other forces.

The building projects coincide with a massive public school construction program being undertaken by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is spending $12.4 billion to build 132 schools by 2013.

Private educators are looking over their shoulders at the government funds pouring into public school improvements and the potential competition from public charter

schools, which are attracting curious families who previously might have selected private education.

Unlike public schools, private school construction is mostly supported by donations from long-planned capital campaigns. An increasing number also are turning to bond financing, which — tax-free and paid back over years — allows schools to tap capital more quickly without wait- ing for fundraising pledges.

And private schools face many obstacles: They often are located in residential neighborhoods, must adhere to city building and safety codes, and are required to obtain land-use permits from local planning departments. Conditional-use permits are subject to public hearings and can include hundreds of conditions restricting building height, parking (some mandate busing of students to minimize traffic, for example), and weekend hours.

Still, independent school educators say they end up with more creative and bold designs than public schools, and campuses that can match the amenities and look of a small college.

Architect Joe Pica of Los Angeles-based Pica + Sullivan Architects, Ltd., who is doing the $15-million Windward project that includes both a new library and a new math/science center, said that as classroom activities and the interests of students and educators evolve, so too do educational facilities, including such things as dance and broadcast studios and space for ceramics, woodworking, photography and computer animation. There also is an emphasis on environmentally friendly design.

“Everything comes in waves, and what’s hot depends on the needs of the school,”

said Pica, who has projects in the construction or planning phases at 15 local private schools.

“Science seems the biggest push right now, with the need to upgrade facilities. The way science is taught has changed, as hasthe classroom size, where you typically have 1,200-square-foot rooms.”

At Loyola High, junior Matt Reid resumed classes in September in a science lab transformed: rooms large enough to hold long, gleaming lab tables, powerful ventilation hoods that allow for more complex experiments and sophisticated equipment to fill the new cabinets. And because the teacher’s classes are now videotaped, students who miss a session can access it later online.

“It was a great room before, but this makes it easier to be safe and a lot easier to learn,” said Matt, 16, whose lab is part of the $30-million Hannon Science Hall and adjoining Ardolf Academic Hall.

“It’s more than bricks and mortar,” said science department chairman Craig Bouma. “We have a brandnew revamped curriculum and teaching plan, and that’s an enormous change for this century-old school.”

At Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth, Head of School Jim Skrumbis said the new facility has made it easier to attract high-caliber faculty.

“It’s not so much just the new building, although they love that, but what they really like is coming into an environment and helping to create something,” Skrumbis said.

“We’re not limited by tradition or a program that doesn’t allow for the kind of autonomy that you should have at an independent school. In some ways, our building is a metaphor for a new entrepreneurial status, along with competitive salaries.”

More frustrating for Skrumbis and other private administrators are the limits that can be imposed by neighborhood opposition. Sierra Canyon’s new high school, financed by bonds and scheduled for completion in March, will operate under a conditional-use permit that restricts the number of after-school events. The school also promised to open some facilities for community use and to develop nearby equestrian trails.

Some schools that do not have current building plans say they are well aware of those that do — even as they remain wary of real estate and building costs.

“The fact that so many of our peer schools are doing major campus redevelopments has not been lost on us,” said Roger Weaver, head of Santa Monica’s Crossroads School, which is drawing up a master plan.

“For our clientele, our campus was never a selling point. People come because of our mission and values. If I could wave a magic wand, I would absolutely love to give them the optimal teaching environment.”

 Keeping Pace With The Rising Expectations

(Below) Computer-generated video of new Windward School Center for Teaching and Learning (Library). The new Science and Math Center is in the foreground. Both projects, by Pica + Sullivan Architects, Ltd., are currently under construction.