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Locals Show Consultants How to Think Outside the Box

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

February 27 -- Condos for teachers in Malibu. A campus at the airport in Santa Monica. A Big Blue Bus to shuttle students between the two beachfront cities.

More than 100 parents, students and community leaders didn’t need any encouragement to think outside the box as they brainstormed ways to get the most out of local school facilities. Meanwhile district officials and their consultants took notes at the meeting at Santa Monica High School Saturday morning.

Unlike last month’s convening, volunteers at the facilities master plan workshop obviously outnumbered staff and school officials. The outside consultants in charge of the meeting handed over the reins early on, and the locals had no problem thinking up a host of unorthodox ways to stretch the district’s resources, both financial and conceptual.

“Per capita, more people are involved in the creative industries than in any other city in California,” one proud Santa Monican pointed out, and it seemed that their influence was felt at the meeting.

The schools were encouraged to partner with Bergamot Station and the 18th Street Arts Complex, with internet companies like Yahoo, and with film and TV production companies to give students new ways to learn by doing.

Internships and partnerships with local hospitals, City government, the hospitality industry, the Third Street Promenade, the Pier and RAND Corporation were among the many ideas volunteered as parents and students raised their hands eagerly.

School reconfiguration was a hot topic. Principal Dr. Ilene Straus, known for her controversial reorganization of the more than 3,000 student school into six smaller schools, inspired the Samohi working group to take things further.

Why not create one or two satellite campuses, across the freeway from the main campus, for students who want a more intimate learning atmosphere, the group concluded. And why not make the “houses” on the main campus more self-contained, putting science labs and facilities for each discipline in each building, so the students would be able to spend most of the day in their houses.

As consultant and architect Steve Bingler urged the participants to “be bold, don’t be shy,” the ideas got even more out there.

“We could get rid of the airport,” one parent said, perhaps in jest, apparently floating the idea of moving the high school there.

Not to be outdone, the Malibu High group called for a complete reconfiguration. The site is being used as a combination middle school/high school campus, something it wasn’t designed for, and the parents and students concluded that “the best strategy would be to start from scratch.”

As in other groups, students often led the discussions in interesting ways. A pair of Malibu students batted the idea back and forth of having a Big Blue Bus take Malibu students to Samohi where they could take courses like German and music classes that aren’t offered at their school.

“I hadn’t really thought of that,” Principal Mark Kelly said, nodding in approval.

And art teacher Thor Evensen brought up the possibility of building affordable condos for teachers in Malibu, since “every home is over $1 million,” clearly out of range of most of the people who work at the school.

The gathering was an ideal place to schmooze, as school officials wandered from group to group looking happy, none more so than Mike Mathews, who’s been named the district’s new interim Superintendent.

He’ll be starting the “day-to-day operation” of the district Monday, he said, while the district hires an outside firm to start the search for a new leader, a process he estimates will take about six months.

After three hours, the participants seemed to be just getting warmed up as ideas for creative financing, joint planning with the city and Santa Monica College, outreach to minority populations and youth entertainment venues spilled out at a increasing pace.

Finally the organizers had to shoo them into the main cafeteria and wind things down as 12:30, the official ending time, came and went and the workshop showed no signs of slowing down.

Bingler gave the groups homework -- to “hook up with each other and continue the conversation” and to brainstorm more partnerships -- before they get together at the next meeting on March 25 at Webster Elementary School in Malibu.

If you would like to participate by coming to a workshop or filling out an online survey, visit the "our school plan" website.

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