Unparalleled gift to schools ignites our community

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

As leaders in education are still reeling from the announcement of a $57-million grant awarded to local schools, the magnitude of the gift — as well as the positive impacts to the community — is still sinking in.

The Department of Defense grant, when combined with the 20-percent matching funds, will provide a total of $70 million for local students — about $39 million for a brand-new campus for Murray Middle School, to be built adjacent to Burroughs High School, and $31 million in comprehensive improvements to the high-school campus.

Sierra Sands Unified School District Superintendent Joanna Rummer said that on top of the direct benefit to students of having state-of-the-art facilities, the exten-ded benefits to the community — from the provision of construction jobs to creating a premiere enticement to local job recruiters — are incalculable.

Although district officials received word only last week that they had been selected to receive a portion of some $250 million in federal grants set aside to benefit military students and families, the district entered the highly competitive process more than a year ago.

“I don’t think the significance of this has even hit yet,” said Burroughs High School Principal David Ostash. He attributed that in part to the fact that DOD has driven the process from the onset.

“This process has been unique in every way. It’s not something we went out and solicited. In fact, when [the government] sent surveyors to look at schools located on military land, we didn’t even really know why they were here.”

It was several months later before DOD published its prioritized list of needs assessment. Out of hundreds of schools across the country, Murray Middle School was ranked No. 4 and Burroughs ranked No. 10.

Since then, the district — with the support and collaboration of Navy and elected officials — went through an exhaustive application process. And with that success came the proverbial strings — which impose tight restrictions on how the money can be spent, “but we hope to incorporate district and community input wherever possible,” said Rummer.

She also noted that the project will take years, with anticipated completion of Burroughs in fall 2015 and of Murray in fall 2016.

“The new Murray campus willbe similar in size, but one of the things we are most excited about is that the school will have a gymnasium like our other secondary schools,” she said.

“I think what this really does is raises up the quality of our facilities to the high quality of education we’ve been delivering,” said Ostash. “We really have outstanding teachers, award-winning programs and students who compete very well with their peers. And now we’ll having the infrastructure to match.”

Murray Principal Kirsti Smith said that she was a little surprised when she heard how her school was ranked. “I always thought we had a great school. I guess I just never thought about how the condition of our buildings compared to other schools. But once we starting taking people around to show them our facilities and looking at it through their eyes, I realized that I had just gotten used to what we have.”

Smith and Ostash each noted that administration spends a significant amount of resources on maintaining the 60- and 70-year-old campuses. “We really have a great maintenance staff that works very hard to keep everything running, but with the modernization I expect for us to spend a lot more of our time and attention on what actually goes on in the classroom,” said Ostash.

Smith said her teachers are excited about the prospect of having a more modern layout, including space between the classrooms for teachers to meet and work.

“I used to dream about winning the lottery, and doing all the things I’d like to do to improve the school with that money,” she said. “And that’s exactly what this is like — we won the lottery!”

Perhaps the most important change for Murray will be the improved access for families. Because of the restricted access to the military base that houses Murray, many families cannot participate in extracurricular events. Restricted access also presents challenges during disaster drills, not to mention real emergencies, said Smith.

“I think one of the things this will do is make us an even tighter school community. A lot of parents want to be a part of our school but can’t get on base. Having equal access for everyone is a tremendous benefit.”

Having the two schools adjacent to each other will also provide endless opportunities for staff and student collaboration, said Ostash.

“Just the physical proximity will allow our middle schoolers to take advanced courses here or our high schoolers to work in the middle-school classrooms. I’m sure we haven’t even anticipated the kinds of opportunities having adjacent schools is going to provide.”

Ostash acknowledged that improving a high school is “more expensive by an order of magnitude” than what is required for a middle school, but the district will be able to get more out of the federal grant dollars now that millions of dollars in electrical and infrastructure improvements — not to mention new construction — have already taken place at the school.

In another stroke of good fortune for the district, Murray had not yet been the subject of the district’s current effort to renovate schools — meaning that its share of the estimated $50 million from Measure A can instead be invested in other schools (and not wasted when/if the school is demolished after its students are moved to their new home).

Rummer said that in a way, having participated in the Measure A improvement project gave the school something of a training ground for the project that lies ahead.

“And I really have to credit all the collaborators outside the district who have supported us — the community as a whole, of course. Kevin McCarthy, Jean Fuller and Shannon Grove all made their staffs available to us for any kind of support we needed. And the Navy, as soon as we told them we were writing this grant, were absolutely right there for anything we needed.”

China Lake has long been a partner of the school district, providing resources and mentors in helping to foster interest and train the next generation of technical employees to support the Navy’s mission.

“This just brings that partnership to the next level,” said Ostash. “One of the spillover effects of this will be alleviating the challenge we all share as employers — attracting and retaining a qualified workforce.”

One of the first things people look at when considering making the IWV their future home is the quality of schools. “When you look at how our students perform I think it’s clear we have a great school. But this upgrade will make that obvious at first glance.”

The entrance to Burroughs — once north-facing to serve the population that came largely from the Navy-owned land — will be reoriented to face south. Ostash said the improved façade and easier access for parents is a plus, but revamping will also improve students’ security.

The improvements will also address current inadequacies in parking, heating, cooling and more.

“I think there is also a benefit here that is not just purely educational,” said Ostash. “High schools are a hub of the community, and a touchstone in people’s lives. There are formative life experiences that happen for the first time — sometimes for the only time — in high school. We make friends, study music, learn foreign languages, play football or learn a proper brush stroke. This is a special time in any person’s development.

“We are just so excited to be able take the service we offer to a level that will better serve our students, our families, our community.” And that investment in our youth ultimately better serves the world, he said.

Story First Published: 2012-12-19