Fifth-grade teacher Berny Contreras faced his new students in a new classroom Tuesday at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima.
“If you take a good look around, a good observer’s going to notice what we are standing in,” Contreras told the children. “Who can tell me, what it is that you are standing in?”
“I am standing in a classroom that is mostly finished,” said one student with a child’s typical honesty. In truth, chairs were still stacked and decorations waiting to be placed on the walls.
“It looks like one of those big boxes they use in construction,” said another.
With a little guidance from Contreras, the students arrived at the answer: Their new classroom is made from shipping containers from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.
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Tuesday was the first day of classes at Vaughn, which starts the new year two weeks before most of the rest of the Los Angeles Unified School District campuses. Over the past four months, architects and construction crews have been at work creating the new buildings for the school of about 3,200 students in kindergarten through the 12th grade.
In all, 75 shipping containers have been turned into 14 classrooms of five containers each. Some will be used for two teachers and two classes together.
Four months is a short timeline to create a new classroom, according to Principal Yvonne Chan. Construction for a new classroom can take about a year, according to LAUSD staff in the facilities services division.
Tuesday’s initiation of the new spaces went down to the wire: Chan had just secured the final OK from school district inspectors, crossing and dotting the final t’s and i’s. Desks were stacked, plastic wrap covered new white boards and teachers waited outside with rolling carts of textbooks, snacks and cleaning supplies, ready to stock their new rooms. Construction crews were still at work in the courtyard, surrounded by green fencing, building out the landscaping.
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The shipping container rooms are replacing 17 aged classrooms — “portables,” the district calls them — that were meant to last 15 to 20 years but have been used at Vaughn perhaps three times as long, according to Chan. The total cost for the project was $11.5 million, Chan said, half of which will be reimbursed by the district.
Not only are the new classrooms bigger — 1,600 square feet instead of the usual 960 — but the layout and larger space mean better alignment with the state’s Common Core requirement to be inclusive, she said.
For students who need extra services, “Psychologists, speech therapists, translators, all come in to serve in an inclusive setting instead of pulling them out. So with that, you have to have more space.”
There aren’t any additional shipping container classrooms planned for other LAUSD campuses at the moment, according to the district’s chief facilities executive, Mark Hovatter. But when the new buildings were being installed at Vaughn in the spring, Hovatter said he expected the idea to eventually be replicated at other LAUSD campuses. It’s a good solution that allows the district to be more nimble when schools grow quickly, such as is the case with some magnet schools, Hovatter said last spring.
Contreras, the teacher, was once a grade-school student at Vaughn. Last year, he worked in one of those aging classrooms.
“It feels a lot safer,” he said of the new classroom, compared with the old classroom in which tiles occasionally fell from the ceiling. “The layout of the classroom was a bit outdated, so to be in here, I like the natural light. I like the way that the classroom is set up. … It seems like we’re going to have the latest technology and all the tools, really, to prepare kids for — what our mission statement states — which is, prepare the kids for their future.”