Students from Western Avenue Elementary’s special education classes sat in the shade and counted rings on “tree cookies” taken from redwoods on a recent field trip.
“This is where learning comes alive and is more meaningful,” said teacher Mysie Dela Pena about the Christensen Math Science and Technology Center in San Pedro. “We talk about a lot of these elements in the classroom, but this is where they get the experience firsthand.”
The interactive life science classroom is a beleaguered survivor of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s budget cuts. But the center won’t be receiving much of a reprieve with the passage last week of Proposition 30.
The measure’s temporary tax increases will halt another round of immediate budget cuts, but district officials say a pending proposal to turn over the operation of the center to a nonprofit organization would relieve the district of financial responsibility.
Ayham Dahi, L.A. Unified’s science coordinator, said he and his staff have learned to be resourceful and creative, looking for ways to keep the four-acre facility open despite the dwindling number of field trips and visitors.
“It’s been devastating for science over the last 10 years,” Dahi said, his gaze fixed on the small ponds that line the center’s garden. “Every year, we’ve struggled to find funding for this place. This year we thought, ‘Let’s try to be proactive.’”
Years ago, a time which the center’s science expert John Zavalney calls “the good-ol’ days,” every regional area in the district had a science center. Now only the Christensen center and another in Granada Hills exist. The campus in San Pedro costs about $400,000 a year to operate, employing what Zavalney said is the “bare minimum” of four salaried people and a team of dedicated volunteers.
The outdoor learning campus shows minimal signs of running on a bare-bones budget. The animals are all well-fed, the garden is maintained, and the fading murals resemble others on some school campuses across the district.
One telling sign of the cuts isn’t the campus itself, but its lower visitor count. Not so long ago, field trip buses streamed to the center on a regular basis. Now, schools have cut the number of field trips because of dwindling funds and rising gas prices.
“The bus is too expensive for us to do this again,” Dela Pena said.
Standing in a puddle of her own filth with mud past her knees, Ophelia seemed unbothered by those who came on a recent day to gawk at her.
The 475-pound pig grunted at the dozens of students attempting to sneak their small hands through the chain-link fence to touch her goopy snout.
When Nanette Roeland, the center’s science technician, told a recent group of fourth-graders how aggressive pigs can be, their arms immediately shot back to their sides.
“They can be very fast and vicious. You do not want to be in the pen with a pig,” Roeland warned as she walked the group over to a Shetland pony and went on to explain its diet.
The center also houses an African tortoise, reptiles, a gaggle of geese and other fowl.
This recent field trip was the first ? and last ? paid for by the L.A. school, so Dela Pena recruited teachers from other grade levels to join her small class to maximize the value.
The next trip, Dela Pena said, will be cheaper. “We’re planning to take them on a Metro bus and have them understand the transportation system.”