Cutting Class

Park trees make a last stand against HISD expansion

A walk through the halls of HSPVA is a fascinating experience. That's where the theater classes practice scenes; that's where art students gather to work on paintings. That's where cellos are propped against walls. That's because there's not enough classroom space.

Built to handle three grades, HSPVA opened the year HISD moved from a junior-high to a middle-school concept. With the abrupt switch to four grades, the school was over capacity from day one. It has 650 students and with a move hopes to go to 800. (Each year more than 1,000 students apply for 180 new places in the school.) Teachers say the school doesn't have the space to offer classes reflecting the technological development of the last two decades.

Some of the classrooms are almost stifling. Walk in a room packed with desks and students, and feel the temperature rise at least 15 degrees from the hallway. Closets have been converted to offices. Storage areas share space with desks. Theater students build props on the stage because there's little room to work elsewhere. Karpicke says one of the first things he would have done in his four years as principal was to knock out the back wall of the stage to give production crews more space. But hemmed in by nearby homes, HISD can't. Choirs meet in sections. There's no room for everyone to rehearse together.

The school, typical of those built in the '70s, has narrow hallways and no classroom windows. There's no gymnasium (HSPVA kids are excused from PE classes), and the commons area serves as a multiuse space for lunch and anything else that comes along.

Asked if parents mind this, Karpicke says no, they're just glad their kids get to go to a school like this. A school like this where they can pursue their passions in the fine arts while taking academic subjects as well. SAT scores are among the highest in the city. It's a public school that pulls kids out of the best private schools in the area. It has its detractors; some say it has a better image than actuality, but it is a great enterprise for HISD to have undertaken and to have continued to support. Paintings hang on walls and aren't destroyed. Graffiti isn't in sight. The dropout rate is almost nil. Karpicke is widely regarded as a very good principal, one with passion, creativity and a desire to make the best place possible for his kids.

But HSPVA wasn't included in the $60-million bond issue. Its problems pale in comparison to those of inner-city schools whose walls and ceilings are falling down. Or as Superintendent Rod Paige said in an August 1998 memo to Karpicke, "While I support program expansion, directing dollars needed for deficiency corrections away from those school[s] to HSPVA for program expansion will gain criticism for our district."

Less than a year later, the deal is back on the table, though. That's because HSPVA offered financial assistance and because HISD doesn't have to spend any money to acquire the 21-acre site on 11th Street, land it got from the Hogg Foundation in 1949.

Timbergrove resident Robert Delgado is a registered interior designer who works for a firm that specializes in designing education facilities. He has spent a lot of time studying what might happen on the 11th Street site. "What might" is the operative phrase here because the district says it has no plans drawn up for the school yet. How, then, did HISD arrive at the projected cost of $30 million? Spokesman Abbott says studies were done pro bono by the Ray Bailey architectural firm and the price is based on "typical square footage costs for the programming specified in HSPVA's needs assessment."

Delgado did his own work. In addition to the school and the amphitheater, he figured in a 500-car parking lot in accordance with city ordinances requiring a three-to-one parking ratio. Using Harris County Flood Control District statistics, he has placed a storm detention pond on the property, a five-foot-deep pit capable of holding four acres of water. He doesn't think all this leaves much room for the 1,800 existing trees. Not to mention the herons, hawks, owls, butterflies, squirrels and crawfish. Or the little baseball field used by neighborhood kids.

He points out that the ancillary development of cafes and shops that one might hope for with the development of a performance center won't be possible in this deed-restricted residential neighborhood.

In fact, it is the argument of Dennis Loving, one of the few Timbergrove Manor supporters of HSPVA, that the neighborhood should welcome the school. Otherwise HISD might sell the property to commercial interests, which might lead to apartments and grocery stores in the area.

Resident Lorraine Cherry spends a lot of time taking photographs of the park these days, documenting what is there. She and husband Dave Dyer have leafleted the neighborhood and launched a petition drive, which they say is running 90 percent against the HSPVA building in their woods.

Cherry says they thought they were out of trouble when the area was recently placed in the 100-year floodplain. But no, she says, HISD representatives say all they have to do is add dirt. The pines in place have a surface root system. Put too much dirt on top too quickly, and you smother them. It seems what the bulldozers don't get, the flood control efforts will.

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