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Every weekday morning, some 2,000 Boyle Heights teens wake up early and get ready for their day at Roosevelt High School. As they approach the campus these days –many of them on foot– they witness how new infrastructure is changing their nearly 100-year-old campus. They hear the sounds of nails drilling into steel and of construction worker shoes walking on dirt.
For the last couple of years, the new normal for Roosevelt students has been going to a school that is under construction. A multi-million-dollar modernization project is intended to help bring the Boyle Heights school up to par with newer ones in the district.
Students, alumni, and school officials believe that the restoration is beneficial to youth currently attending, but some members of the community opposed the idea from the get go, out of fear that it would tear away at the school’s unique and significant history. Some of Roosevelt structures, like the R classroom building, were the site of protests and other actions during the important 1968 protests known as the Eastside Walkouts.
Whether or not people are in favor of the renovation, the school’s reconstruction is ongoing and is expected to be completed by spring 2023.
In 2018, the Los Angeles Unified School District budgeted $173 million project to rebuild Roosevelt. The “comprehensive modernization project,” as the school district refers to it, was budgeted last year at $190 million. In addition, the school district has allotted an additional $26 million to improve exterior sports facilities.
As part of LAUSD’s project, older structures, such as the R building, needed to be demolished.
“Classrooms were outdated, they were small,” said Ben Gertner, the Roosevelt principal. “There were a lot of issues with air conditioning and [the] plumbing, all kinds of issues in the building. The gym was small, it was dark.”
In place of the demolished structures, the district would add a new administration building, a wellness clinic, classroom buildings, and a performing arts center.
Gertner said that some of the old buildings were potentially dangerous for students. He said that due to financial and seismic constraints, the structure of the old R building, beloved by the alumni, could not be saved.
The old structures were demolished in 2018, and a new gymnasium and new R classroom building opened in the fall. Among facilities currently under construction, the auditorium/performing arts center will serve as a new entrance to the school from Fourth Street.
Many people in the Roosevelt community were in favor of the renovation – especially current and former students.
“Oh, I think that it’s an amazing thing,” said Sandra Quintero, who graduated from Roosevelt in 1987. “It took too long to get modernized”.
The principal, Gertner, added that having better facilities brings a renewed sense of pride to those walking through the halls of Roosevelt.
“Just being in a nice environment makes you feel more comfortable,” he said. “And I think more of a sense of pride, like you’re valued… I think it helps everyone feel more positive”.
He added that having new technology and classrooms would overall improve people’s moods and further students’ ability to learn.
Some community opposition
Still, many people in the community were initially against the renovation as proposed by LAUSD. A group named the Committee to Defend Roosevelt formed and tried to prevent it from going further.
Vivian Escalante, a Roosevelt alumnus from the class of 1972, was a part of this committee.
“When we went door to door, the people that did support the project had no notion that it was going to be a demolition of the original historic buildings… that was really shocking to many, many people,” she said.
In 2018 the committee sued LAUSD and tried to negotiate a new plan in order to preserve the older buildings. The district reached a deal with the Committee to Defend Roosevelt, pledging that they would spend about $1 million to preserve the entrance and the stairs that led to the R building. Those pieces would eventually form part of a memorial in the school quad.
”We want to build it,” said Escalante, “and it will be a design that will represent what the original design looks like. So that everybody can see how grand and how beautiful that historic building was.”
Escalante said that they were not able to save as many of the original elements as they wanted.
“There’s a lot of artifacts that LAUSD did save, we had a longer list, but you know, they gave us what we could get”.
Still, Escalante fears that students who attend Roosevelt during and after the modernization won’t form a connection with the school’s history.
Before the demolition, history teachers would take their students through the R building. The teachers would show them places where the 1968 Walkouts took place.
“They could envision it because of how everything was representative –the scent, the structure, the stairs,” Escalante said. “And today, you’re not going to be able to have that.”