DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - For decades, Ninth Street Elementary School was outdated, and that may be a charitable description. 

Made up entirely of worn portable bungalows, the 450-student school at 820 Towne Ave., on the edge of Skid Row, had neither a library nor an auditorium. When it rained, students were stuck in their small classrooms, with no large indoor place to play. 

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Now, things are changing in a big way. On Tuesday, Aug. 13, the school, which was shuttered for the past three years, will reopen following a $54 million renovation. The project removed the 100 bungalows and replaced them with approximately 78,000 square feet of state-of-the-art educational space. The school now offers 33 classrooms with 855 seats for kindergarten through eighth-grade students. 

The facilities include a gymnasium with basketball hoops that drop down from the approximately 60-foot high ceiling. There is a stage, two dance studios, a 7,000-book library and an underground parking lot.

“The only thing that’s the same is the name,” said Dean Simpson, the new Ninth Street Elementary principal. “Other than that there is nothing that’s the same. It’s a clean slate.”

Ninth Street is actually comprised of two schools. The elementary school, with serves grades K-5, is being operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District. There is also a 405-seat charter middle school run by Downtown-based Para Los Niños. 

The new campus was paid for with funds from Proposition Q, a bond measure passed by voters in 2008, and about $12 million from Para Los Niños, which obtained money through grants and other sources. 

More Options

The school reopens at a time when Downtown families are looking for more options for their kids. 

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the families of Downtown that they are very concerned,” said Monica Garcia, an LAUSD board member whose district includes the school. “They want a high-achieving school and a safe school and supportive school.” 

The viewpoint is echoed by Hal Bastian, the senior vice president and director of economic development for the Downtown Center Business Improvement District. Bastian, who has helped a group of parents create the coming Metro Charter Elementary School, said that new and better schools are a necessity to keep families in the area.

“The school reopening is great news for the Downtown community,” he said.

According to a 2011 demographic study by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, 6.3% of neighborhood households had children under 5 living at home, working out to about 1,850 kids. Another 4.8% of households had children between 5 and 18, meaning approximately 1,535 additional children in the community.

For Downtowners with elementary school-age children, choices include a Para Los Niños charter school at Seventh and Alameda streets, Tenth Street Elementary School near Olympic Boulevard and Union Avenue, Chinatown’s Castelar Elementary School and Solano Elementary just north of Dodger Stadium.

Still, these choices have been unsatisfactory for many of the people who moved into Downtown in the past decade. As a result, parents have frequently been forced to find a charter, pay for private school or move out of the area.

The situation prompted a group of parents to come together and create Metro Charter, which is scheduled to open on Sept. 3 at 1401 S. Grand Ave. A primary factor in opening the school was that for many families, Ninth Street Elementary is the closest school.

When it closed for renovations in 2010, Ninth Street had an academic performance index (API) score of 695, well below the state’s target of 800. It ranked among the lowest performing elementary schools in California. 

Despite its past, school board member Garcia said the new Ninth Street school could attract the Downtown families who previously didn’t see it as an option.

“I am sure we will have to put together a very strong program so we can welcome the families of the neighborhood,” she said. “The families will evaluate for themselves.” 

Starting Over

According to LAUSD officials, the site that houses Ninth Street has been used for a school since 1890. 

In recent decades, it primarily served the children of people who worked in the nearby garment shops or held other low wage jobs. 

“It was a challenged environment and we get to start again,” Garcia said. “The environment there is coming alive.”

Simpson said he expects to start the new school year with about 300 students (his portion of the school can hold 450 students). They will be children who live in the area or have parents who work nearby.

When they arrive for their first day in their dark blue and burgundy uniforms, students will see a stylish metal structure with sculptural elements and splashes of bright orange and purple. 

The street-level play area inside is reserved for the elementary school students. There are six basketball hoops for older kids as well as tetherball and foursquare courts. A fenced playground serves the kindergarten set. There is also a small grass area. 

The gym/multi-purpose room is equipped with an electronic scoreboard and basketball hoops that can be raised to make room for other sports like volleyball or for community events. The gym also has a stage that can open to the playground thanks to a large folding door. This will allow the school to hold large outdoor community events. 

The school is equipped with Wi-Fi. There are also five high-tech boards that project images that can be virtually manipulated by students. 

Teachers will have laptops and the library will hold 7,000 books. There will be a small amphitheater for readings and other events and the two dance studios will have ballet barres and large windows facing Stanford Street. 

The play area for the Para Los Niños middle school rises above the elementary school playground. It includes a small track, lighted basketball courts and more than a dozen cement spheres for students to sit on and hang out. 

The middle school will open with about 200 students in sixth and seventh grades. It will expand to eighth grade the following year, said Martine Singer, president and CEO of Para Los Niños.

“It’s a dream come true,” she said. “I feel like so many of our children live in tiny places and they don’t have outdoor places at home. Here they can literally grow beyond their wildest dreams.” 

By last week, many of the newly hired teachers had spent several days at the school getting their classrooms ready. They included Kye Kim, a fourth grade teacher.

Kim saw the construction going on one day while driving by the school. She decided to apply for a job. 

“The classrooms are functional, warm, bright and welcoming, everything a teacher would want,” she said. 

On Tuesday, they will get put to use when the students arrive. 

richard@downtownnews.com.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013