Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Seaside High is a sprawling campus on a ridge so close to the bay that you can smell the salt air. But for many students and teachers, the natural beauty is overshadowed by the school’s balky heaters, unkempt bathrooms, and decades-old buildings.
In September, county education officials gave school facilities their lowest possible ranking – poor – after an unannounced inspection. They found fire safety issues, heating and ventilation problems and hazardous oil leaks from the auto shop that they considered emergencies. Urgent items got immediate attention, says Dan Albert, Monterey Peninsula Unified School District assistant superintendent for facilities, but a host of problems remain. Graffiti is painted out, but some walls are scarred with cloud-like splotches of color with faint spray paint still visible underneath. Albert opens an empty classroom where the temperature feels sauna-like at about 80 degrees, an example of how the school’s heating system works overtime in some classrooms while in others, students and teachers shiver in the cold. A water fountain is rusted out, candy and chip wrappers dot the grounds, and a picnic table is missing a seat, leaving its metal supports exposed.
“We need a big upgrade,” says 17-year old senior Joycey Tonga, “the bathrooms, the classrooms, a paint job.”
“I was thinking of bringing my own vacuum cleaner and mop,” says one teacher who won’t give his name because he fears reprisals if he speaks up about conditions at the school.
Seaside draws extra scrutiny from the state and county because it is part of a class action lawsuit – Williams v. California – settled five years ago on behalf of mostly low income students across the state who argued that they were denied their right to equal education under California’s constitution because of poor school conditions, lack of textbooks and qualified teachers. Governor Schwarzenegger’s staffers sat down with American Civil Liberties Union attorneys and others to hammer out an agreement that calls for yearly inspections of schools – to check facilities, availability of textbooks, teacher qualifications, and whether kids are offered help to pass the high school exit exam.
This year, Seaside got passing grades on textbooks, and exit exam prep. A county team will review teacher assignments in February, and school officials vow to tackle problems with the buildings and grounds.
But the school is also under fire for poor academic performance. A panel of experts working to improve it reports a culture of low expectations at Seaside. If test scores don’t rise, the state could replace Seaside’s teachers and administrators, or force the school to become a charter.
“Conditions need to be conducive to learning,” says County Office of Education Superintendent Nancy Kotowski. “Self-respect, dignity and pride do come into play in the environment so students can do their best and lift their heads high,” she says.
It won’t be easy to spruce up the campus. Albert points to 45-year-old buildings in need of major refurbishing, and budget cuts that have decimated Seaside’s custodial ranks. In January, state officials will decide whether to approve the school’s request for $4 million in emergency repair funds, but the fund is currently tapped out, and even if the grant is approved, money might not be available until the state budget crisis eases.