Hermosa Beach Vista School promises new direction in education, end to five decades of district divisiveness
by Kevin Cody
Photos and video by Bo Bridges (BoBridges.com)
In May 2015, James Scott wrote a letter to the editor that read, “Dear Easy Reader, When I was five years old, people I never met paid for my first kindergarten classroom. In fact, they paid for the whole school. It had a big auditorium, where I took my first steps on a stage. It had a large grassy field where you could run and run, and never bump into another kid (unless, of course, that’s what you were trying to do). School was a place where we learned to read and write, but it was also a safe and welcoming place where we grew as individuals and made lifelong friendships… Somewhere, now in the City of Hermosa Beach, is a five year old child who is a great investment in our future.”
Scott was a Los Angeles Unified elementary school teacher and co-chair of Yes on Measure S, a $59 million bond proposal on the June 2016 ballot. Proceeds were to fund reopening of North School and to add classrooms at View Elementary and Hermosa Valley schools.
At the time, Hermosa Valley had 948 third through eighth grade students on a campus designed for 750 students. View had 481 kindergarten through second grade students on a campus designed for 216 students.
Voters approved Measure S by a vote of 2,909, or 59 percent in favor, and 2,029 opposed.
Last Tuesday, the five-year-old kindergartener Scott mused about, was among the 101 transitional kindergarteners and kindergarteners, 98 first graders and 86 second graders who returned from spring break to attend classes at the new Vista School on the old North School site.
North School was built in 1924. A bronze plaque at the school’s entrance commemorating a classroom addition, thanked President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Administrator of Public Works Harold L. Ickes.
Its main building was designed in the mission style by architect Samuel Lunden, whose previous work included the art deco Pacific Coast Stock Exchange and the USC Doheny Memorial Library, according to Hermosa historian Chris Miller. Miller was one of many residents who had hoped North would be remodeled rather than replaced. The district closed the school in 1987, when districtwide enrollment fell below 700.
“We looked at options for preserving North, but given seismic and structural considerations, the most cost effective solution was new construction,” said Nathan Herrero, of SVA Architects. Herrero was also the architect for Redondo Union High’s bond-financed improvements in 2012.
Hermosa Vista’s name was chose by the PTA and the education foundation to emphasize the district’s “one school at three sites” model and to give the district’s three schools the same HVS initials.
Herrero said Vista’s “coastal modern” design is meant to blend in with its residential neighbors.
The old, Spanish colonial home on the east side of the school shares the new school’s tan color, while the home on the south side not only matches the school’s colors, but is close enough in design to be mistaken for being part of the campus.
Like the neighboring homes, Vista is two stories.
Herrero said typical California schools are finger-shaped, with single story wings whose classrooms open to the yard. Vista is designed like an East Coast school, with indoor corridors leading to the classrooms.
The compact design allows for large windows that look out on the ocean from atop the sand dune the school is built on.
Vista’s 17 classrooms are still the traditional 960 square feet, with a maximum capacity of 32 students (post pandemic protocols). But the traditional lecture environment, with students facing a teacher at the front of the room in front of a chalkboard, has been abandoned in favor of flexibility meant to encourage student engagement.
“Vista classrooms have entire walls that are white boards for students to write on. Wall monitors replace the old style projector and screen,” Herrero said.
“It’s nice to have a 21st Century model of education. All of the kids have Chromebooks,” Principal Ted Scott said.
He described the students’ response to their new school as “very positive.”
“I’ve yet to have a student in my office for disciplinary reasons. That speaks volumes,” the principal said.
School counselor Christy Cole, whose mornings have been spent opening car doors for the arriving students, said, “Kids can’t wait to get out of the car because they are so excited to be here.”
Teachers share that excitement. Over the spring break, second grade teacher and union leader Lia Navas said the teachers, administration, and maintenance staff all worked to have the school ready.
“We didn’t want students to walk into a classroom full of boxes,” she said.
Prior to spring break, when her students were at View School, the hybrid model had half of her class on campus in the morning and half in the afternoon.
“This is the first time this year that the whole class has been together, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.,” Nava said.
Superintendent Jason Johnson said Vista, and Hermosa Valley School are offering the most on-campus teaching of any school in Los Angeles County.
He attributed the smooth transition to a new campus during a pandemic as a reflection of the staff’s and the broader community’s commitment to its students.
“Lia told me Monday night, before the first day of classes, ‘We’ve got to make this right for the kids.’”
Now that Vista is open, work will begin on increasing classroom space at View School. When View is finished, work will commence at Valley. When the Measure S funds are expended, the district will have classroom space for approximately 1,600 students. The transitional kindergarten students, now at Vista, will return to View. Third and fourth graders now at Valley will move to Vista and Valley will keep its fifth through eighth grade students.
A long road
At least for the foreseeable future, Vista School opening marks an end to debates over school closings and openings that have rivaled in intensity and divisiveness Hermosa’s redevelopment plans in the 1970s; its hotel development on The Strand, from the ‘70s through to today; and oil drilling from the 1930s to 2015’s No on O vote, banning oil drilling.
The school debates began in 1977, when USC Rossier School of Education Dean Dr. John Stallings presented an enrollment forecast to the Hermosa Beach School Board at Prospect Heights Elementary School. Enrollment at the district’s six schools had fallen 50 percent over the preceding 15 years, from a high of 2,141 students in 1963 to just over 800.
Prospect Heights had barely 100 students. Pier Avenue Junior High, the 1920s era, art deco school district showcase in the heart of town, was closed two years earlier.
“We have twice as many 8th graders as we do kindergarteners,” Hermosa Superintendent Andrew Joyce told the Prospect School parents.
Still, the parents were furious over the school board’s decision to close Prospect at the end of the school year. Stallings sympathized.
“A school is an idea, with tomorrow inside… It is love — with a lump in your throat,” the esteemed educator had written in one of his many published papers.
Stallings’ 1977 report predicted Hermosa enrollment would continue to decline because Hermosa property values would continue to rise, pricing out families with young kids.
The future proved the USC dean right about escalating Hermosa property values. And he was right about falling enrollment, at least through the following decade. During the 1986-87 school year, Hermosa had barely 600 students at its three remaining schools — Valley, View and North.
The following year the school board made the unpopular decision to close both View and North. All of the districts’ students, from kindergarten to eighth grade, were moved to the newly remodeled Valley Vista Elementary School.
Parents launched an unsuccessful recall effort.
Pier Avenue Junior High had been sold to the city for use as a community center in 1978.
Strips of Prospect Heights, View and South were sold in 1984 for residential development. South School became South Park and condos. Prospect Heights became Edith Rodaway Friendship Park. North’s playground became the soccer field at Valley Park. A school storage facility became Forts Lots of Fun.
The district used proceeds from the sales and leases to remodel Valley Vista into a state-of-the art campus.
Then an unforeseen demographic trend upended the school closure decisions. The year Valley School reopened as a kindergarten through 8th grade school, enrollment began to climb. It’s been climbing ever since.
In 2002, voters approved Measure J. The $13.6 million bond was to fund new classrooms. But when the school board added a gym to the plans, at the expense of several classrooms, parents sued. The suit failed, but legal fees and construction delays caused by the suit cost the district $500,000.
In 2008, the school board put Measure E, a parcel tax on the ballot. The opposition agreed the district needed funds. Finances were so dire the board was contemplating merging its schools with neighboring Manhattan Beach or Redondo Beach. Or converting them to charter schools. But after the gym controversy, the majority of voters didn’t trust the board to spend Measure E proceeds wisely.
“Voting ‘No’ on Measure E will send the school board the right message: ‘You need to operate on a prudent budget.’ Feeding the school district more monies will not solve the problem,” resident Lawrence O. Fordiani wrote in a letter to the editor.
Measure E failed, with just 47 percent of voter support.
In 2014, the board went back to the voters with Measure Q. The $54 million bond measure was intended to reopen North and expand Hermosa Valley and View. Measure Q would increase property taxes by $29.50/$100,000 in assessed valuation. The total school district assessment, combined with Proposition J’s $17.97/$100,000 would be $49.47/$100,000. By comparison, Manhattan’s school assessment was $70.75 and Redondo’s $92.42.
Measure Q fell 32 votes short of the 55 percent support needed for passage.
Two years later the school board placed Measure S on the ballot, making the same arguments for the $59 million bond as it had for Measure Q.
In the months leading up to the June 2016 election, school board member Maggie Bove-LaMonica argued in one letter to the editor, “Measure S will remove the 18 portable classrooms located at View and Valley schools, re-open the North school campus for 3rd and 4th.
In a second letter she noted, “The School District is currently operating over its capacity and using makeshift accommodations to seat over 1,470 students. Our school population has increased every year since 1987 and is projected to maintain its over-saturated level for at least another 10 years. Additionally, the average age of our schools is 70 years old.”
Measure S passed, with 4,040 votes in favor and 2,725 opposed. The 59.72 percent support was enough to push the measure over the 55 percent requirement state law imposes for the approval of school facilities bonds.
But Measure S opponents still wanted to preserve the historic North School. In August 2017, the Hermosa Beach Taxpayer Group, composed of roughly 100 Hermosa Beach residents, filed a complaint in Los Angeles County Superior Court to require the school district to determine whether renovating North School, at an estimated $6 million, would not be more cost effective than building a new school at the site, for an estimated $28 million.
The court dismissed the suit, without examining its merits, because it was filed past the statute of limitations.
The school district also faced opposition from the city council, which threatened to sue the district over the North School traffic plan.
Like all California school districts, Hermosa has final permitting authority for projects on its campus. But the City of Hermosa has permitting control over street traffic.
A suit was averted when the city and school district agreed to split the cost of a traffic study and form a Neighborhood Traffic Management plan.
Still, the Measure S opposition persisted, traveling 200 miles north to San Luis Obispo, in July 2019, to argue before the California Coast Commission that the traffic plan was inadequate.
The school is just a few blocks from the beach and the commissioners were concerned that traffic issues might impact beach access. They suggested delaying issuance of a coastal commission permit until the school’s neighbors and the district could agree on a traffic plan.
Superintendent Pat Escalante protested that construction costs were forecast to increase rapidly, and that the coastal development permit was the last approval the district needed to begin work on the new campus.
“Well, I think it could be worked out,” one commissioner declared, flinging his hands into the air.
Terry Tao, an attorney representing the district, dissuaded the commission from delaying approval by recounting the district’s history, “I’m not convinced that you’re going to get consensus.”
“This district is very unusual. I represent school districts, primarily on issues of facilities, up and down the coast of Southern California. This district seems to get sued on just about every project,” he said. ER
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