After 11 Years, LA Unified Opens Most Expensive School to Date

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After years of controversy, drama, and emotion-filled board meetings, the Roybal Learning Center, formerly known as the Belmont Learning Complex, opened its doors to students Wednesday. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has the story.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Twenty-six years ago, Lupe Fernandez remembered, school officials talked about building a new high school in the crowded neighborhoods just west of downtown L.A.

Lupe Fernandez: They came over with plans, they showed it to parents. My daughter's class, Ana Teresa Fernandez was supposed to be the first class to graduate from the Belmont Learning Complex which would have been the class of 2000.

Guzman-Lopez: Her daughter was in kindergarten then. Years later the school board broke ground on a 35-acre site to build a facility big enough for 5,000 students. The project tripped, then fell on its face.

An investigation revealed that administrators had failed to properly examine the danger of old oil wells under the property, while outside consultants and contractors had failed to do the job L.A. Unified paid them to do. Fernandez attended board meetings and organized rallies for five years. She began to hope that one of her two younger kids would benefit from a new, less crowded campus.

Fernandez: When things really got bad, my mom drove around the whole complex with a bottle of holy water, splashing on the site. And I would be driving my van she would be splashing it on. And I would be saying, "In Jesus' name this school will be built. I don't care how many times I have to hear no."

Guzman-Lopez: Earlier this year, construction crews finished the school and a ten-acre park next to it. Not long before opening day, environmental lawyer Roger Carrick climbed the park's gently sloping paths.

He'd worked on the Belmont Learning Complex investigation. Carrick contends that this school's construction left three sets of victims: a generation of young people who studied in crowded classrooms with overburdened teachers, parents who trusted the school district...

Roger Carrick: And third of course, are all the rest of us, all of those of us who lived in Los Angeles and pay our property taxes and pay our income taxes and believed in the school district and thought that Belmont, the first high school in 20 years was going to be a shining example.

Guzman-Lopez: On the day the scaled-back and redesigned campus opened its doors, some students showed up an hour and a half early, just as the sun peeked through the downtown L.A. high-rises.

Monica Garcia: Ah, look at this, walking in from that side. It's an amazing feeling to be part of history.

Guzman-Lopez: L.A. Unified School Board President Monica Garcia said the school district learned important lessons during the long process of finishing what it had started.

Garcia: Today, we see a job well done. This school is a fabulous facility with four small learning communities, two pilot schools, so that reform is not only in the facility it's in the instruction.

Guzman-Lopez: The Edward Roybal Learning Center is named after L.A.'s late Latino congressman. The facility may be new, but its opening rituals mirrored those at any high school campus. 18-year-old Omar Martinez kneeled and kissed the concrete. As a senior, he proclaimed, he's going to rule the school.

Omar Martinez: I gotta buy all my stuff. My ring, my gown, everything, ready, prepared for senior and graduation day. It's sweet.

Guzman-Lopez: Jose Linares wore a pressed blue dress shirt and tie, his academy's uniform. He's a ninth grader, at the bottom of the ladder.

Jose Linares: It's so big that I might get lost because it's my first time being in high school.

PA announcement: It is now time for you to move to your advisory class, if you haven't checked the schedules on the wall, please do so at this time.

Guzman-Lopez: Eleventh grader Lee Chui Ying is enrolled in Roybal High's Computer Science Academy. She wants to work as a language interpreter. Ying attended 85-year-old Belmont High School last year, but she likes Roybal much more.

Lee Chui Ying: That one seems old and everything is new and then it's huge, like, really, really big. That's why I like this one.

Guzman-Lopez: And with that, Ying and the fashionistas, hip hop kids and the punk rockers joined the Mexican, Salvadoran and Honduran immigrants who streamed into the doors as the founding students of the Roybal Learning Center.