Monday, March 26, 2012

Point Fermin Outdoor Education Center opened last July, but with no money to run it, the center is vacated most of the week.
Tim Bower and Gerado Salazar, both who work for Beyond the Bell, a branch of Los Angeles Schools, are seeking ways to fill the center so thousands of students can learn science there.
The $9.5 million Point Fermin Outdoor Education Center on a San Pedro Bluff Above the Ocean May Have to Open to More Than Just LA Students -- And Not For Free

By DIana L. Chapman

     Beyond the Bell, the department that manages free after school programs for Los Angeles district schools -- has found itself, well, having to think much beyond its bell -- especially regarding its spanking new outdoor education center in San Pedro, officials said this week.
     Caught up in the churning economic turmoil of Los Angeles Unified schools, Beyond the Bell administrators aren't ruling out anything when it comes to bringing in monies to keep the shining $9.5 million, 3.5 acre site open to teach Los Angeles Unified students about science and the great outdoors.
     Now, they are openly encouraging outside organizations and others to use the Point Fermin Outdoor Education Center-- for a price. Anyone interested should call, said Beyond the Bell Director Tim Bower.
     "Ten years ago, we would have been closed to that. Now, we are pitching it," Bower explained. "We are open to hear from anyone. By the time this (the center) was to open, we had no money to run it. It's built and we're not going to let it sit here.
     "This is a gem in the district. It's sad to see a facility like this without children."
     All the money would be used toward the center's initial mission of having some 24,000 students go through its doors seven days a week all year at a cost of 1.5 million, a plan sharply scaled back to the quick due to LAUSD's shrinking budget.
     It's currently only open to students on the weekend, Bower said.
     The location --tucked in the park-like lands at Angel's Gate -- could attract a pretty penny with its awe inspiring ocean views when walking up a small hill and solid oak bunk beds that sleep up to 160 in  former military barracks. The center also includes a six-bedroom apartment for teachers and a studio for a caretaker.
     With drastic budget cuts looming, disappointed Beyond the Bell officials have found themselves grappling with a new mission -- "marketing," a far stretch from its focus which is to provide after school care for Los Angeles Unified students virtually for free.
     All the branch's programs, in fact, are on the chopping block, including its beloved Academic Decathlon, its after school programs at individual schools, its All City Honor Marching Band and posts for  800 employees. The potentially deep cuts also could include both its outdoor science centers, Point Fermin and Clear Creek in the Angeles National Forest.
     "We're great at curriculum, but we are not marketing geniuses," admits Gerardo Salazar, a program coordinator for the Beyond the Bell who will be dealing with groups interested in using the site. He was hired specifically for his keen abilities to coordinate private and public partnerships and understanding of programming structures, Bower said.
     Calling the science centers "meccas for education," Salazar said, students learn to come up with a theory and prove it, such as studying different contaminants in  tide pools to find out what creatures live there and why.
     Learning science this way has been so successful that administrators decided that they must put all their options on the table to keep the programs thriving despite its budget becoming "leaner and leaner."
     For a price, charter and private schools could send their students to take advantage of the center's  program. That would come complete with Beyond the Bell staff where students spend the night for a week, learn to team with others and study things like wildlife and ocean tides for $350 per student.
     "It's like a giant laboratory," Bower said. "They (students) get their hands dirty. They see, hear and smell the outdoors."
     In addition, officials added, they would consider potential corporations  who might want to use the facility for a camp like experience and perhaps even bar mitzvahs, receptions  and even weddings -- all prices that would have to be negotiated.
     The San Pedro center opened last July on a minimal basis and is primarily used on weekends by intermediate students learning to build leadership skills.
     Due to an earlier agreement, the branch cannot charge LAUSD students to use the facility -- a condition of the  $2.5 million grant received from the Wildlands Conservancy to build the center and "we're honoring it," Bower said.
     The three-building facility, designed from tin and wood to fit right into the outdoors , is pinned in behind the new John M. and Muriel Olguin  campus -- an annex to San Pedro High, which opens this August.
     Officials expected to run the Point Fermin center similarly to Beyond the Bell's other outdoor education center, only double the size and the costs. Clear Creek typically shovels 12,000 LAUSD students, primarily 4th and  5th graders, to study each year for $800,000.
     To open the San Pedro facility, which was expected to initially cost $5 million to build, administrators used a portion of Clear Creek annual programming funds. Beyond the Bell also had to cough up millions more to finish it due to "elevated" construction costs, Bower said.
     Exploring other funding alternatives could allow Beyond the Bell to continue its mission to teach "hands-on" science to students who learn anything from wildlife to ocean tides, how to team with others, and for many, to see the ocean or stay away from home for the first time.
     "It's about learning to get along, passing the food around the table -- all without their parents," Bower said. "They come sometimes crying because it's the first time away from home. Then they cry because they don't want to leave.
     "They can learn more science here in five days than a year in the classroom."
Once conducted in tents -- and in burly winds at Point Fermin Park until moving to Angel's Gate lands -- the new center was the brainchild of now-retired program director Debbie Hetrick.
     Whipping winds and soggy weather often cut down time at the outdoor education program leaving Hetrick to joke that she laid in a weedy field in San Pedro, phone in hand, to run the program.
     Later when the science program moved to Angel's Gate on the Fort MacArthur Upper Reservation -- once air force property that was later donated to LAUSD--  Hetrick spotted two abandoned military barracks she concluded should become a permanent home for the education center and garnered the $2.5 million grant.
     The program has run since 1948.
    "We'll do whatever we need to do to keep the doors open and the kids coming," Salazar said.
    If interested in using the center, contact Gerardo Salazar at (213) 241-2692 or email at