From shipyard to schoolyard: Pacoima charter school gets unique new classrooms

April 21, 2017
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Los Angeles Daily News
April 21, 2017

On Friday, hundreds of students gathered on a playground at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima for what the school’s principal likened to an old-fashioned barn-raising. Girls performed traditional Mexican folk dances in bright green skirts, ice cream was served, and school officials cut through a giant red ribbon.

Behind construction fencing at the edge of the playground was the reason for the celebration: a collection of shipping containers from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles that are being converted into new classrooms for fourth- and fifth-grade students.

When the project wraps up near the end of July, 75 shipping containers will have been turned into 28 classrooms, said Founding Principal Yvonne Chan.

The project can be a model for other schools in the district, Chan said. Many have “portable” classrooms that need replacing, she said. “Those temporaries are supposed to last, what, 15, 20 years?” The ones being replaced at Vaughn have been there for perhaps three times as long, she said.

The new classrooms will be 1,600 square feet each instead of the 960 square feet in the portable classrooms now on the campus. There can be two teachers in a class instead of one, Chan said. And it’s just in time for the growth she foresees in the school.

Mark Hovatter, chief facility executive for the district, said he expects the shipping containers-turned-classrooms idea to be replicated at other district schools. It’s a good solution that allows the district to be more nimble when schools grow quickly. Students are thinking about careers early on and moving to magnet schools and specialty programs to prepare themselves. Those schools have to be able to respond, fast, he said.

“Traditional construction takes us three to five years, from the time we approve a project. We have a need right now, because (if) there’s a new field that people are interested in, if we wait three to five years to deliver it, we’re too late.”

The district has already embarked on two projects with shipping containers — a library and an administration building for a data center at two other schools — but they’ve never done a project with classrooms, Hovatter said.

Several containers make one classroom, with most sides of the containers cut out to make an open room. Inside, the space is spare, for now, and light, with floor-to-ceiling windows at one end, doors at both ends and ceilings of white corrugated metal.

The district covered half the construction cost for this project, instead of its typical 35 percent to build a school, Hovatter said.

“It’s in our mutual benefit to do this. We’re replacing old, worn-out trailers that were brought in here 30-plus years ago,” he said. The shipping container classrooms are lower maintenance and higher quality, he said. With solar energy fixtures, they’ll also produce the power they use.

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