CHS more than $111 million in the making

Jesus Garcia paints a door in the new E-wing.

If anyone winces at Christopher High School’s hefty $111 million
price tag, Principal John Perales’ reply is always the same:

If education is truly the priority, we finally put our money
where our mouth is.

If anyone winces at Christopher High School’s hefty $111 million price tag, Principal John Perales’ reply is always the same: “If education is truly the priority, we finally put our money where our mouth is.”

Thirteen months, $299,909 in additional change orders and one big, beckoning water slide later, the $20 million Phase II undertaking at CHS has gone from nothingness, to skeleton, to shimmering reality.

Almost.

While 20 new and 15 returning teachers get cozy in the Wing E – an $11,950,000 humanities building where English, foreign languages and digital media will be taught – inaugural belly flops into the 13-foot deep competition pool will come a month later than expected.

Perales slated his christening dive for Aug. 12, “but the way they have to pour the deck is so complicated it will take another three weeks to a month,” he said Friday afternoon, scanning the gaping dirt hole behind CHS’s cafeteria.

Completion hinges on the deck’s construction, in addition to covering the pool’s floor in gunite (a mixture of cement and sand) before filling it with water. Perales anticipates CHS Cougar swim and water polo teams will be playing on home turf by the last week of September. Up until now, they’ve been practicing at Gavilan College, he said.

Perales added delay in the aquatic center’s construction, a joint city-school project, will not cost more money.

As for Wing E, the 57,000-square-foot facility is the final link in Christopher’s pie-slice-shaped perimeter. The high school’s sprawling outdoor courtyard is now enclosed by cafeteria, gymnasium, science, fine arts and humanities buildings: A scholastic fortress giving CHS the feel of a castle.

“It’s like a little city,” said Perales, strolling through the grassy quad. “And we feel that way.”

Along with the near-finished, $3,787,000 aquatics center, which includes a city-run 5,863-square-foot activities pool with play features, shared administrative office and restroom, the completion of Wing E sunsets a colossal enterprise launched 11 years ago.

The incredible task of erecting a brand new high school that opened in 2009 was made possible by state funding, the $69 million Measure I approved in 2002 to start construction and the $150 million Measure P general obligation bond passed by taxpayers in 2008. The initial cost to build CHS was estimated at $38.5 million, though the amount ballooned to more than $90 million for Phase I and mainstay buildings such as the cafeteria, the gymnasium and most classrooms. That’s on top of $20 million for the 40 acres CHS sits on, plus an additional $20 million for Phase II – the aquatics center and humanities building.

CHS is responsible for the competition pool, while the city plans to have the activities pool open to the public by next summer according to Maria De Leon, the city’s recreation manager who says the city contributed $6.5 million to CHS construction projects. The money comes from bond proceeds received when the city re-financed its public buildings debt in 2009, she said. Of the $6.5 million, $2.2 million was contributed to the CHS gymnasium, and the remaining $4.3 million went to the aquatics center.

As for the possibility of opening up the competition pool to members of the community for open lap swims, Perales says CHS isn’t planning on it due to security issues, but the city may arrange opportunities in the future.

Now, with the first day of school around the corner on Aug. 22, CHS – once a 40-acre field at 850 Day Road – embarks on a new era when 1,472 new and returning students flood its modern, grandiose entryway. The class of 2012 will be the first CHS Cougars to graduate.

Like its sister buildings, Wing E is stately and neoclassical looking on the outside with a spacious, airy interior. Natural light floods every classroom through large windows, views frame rolling Gilroy landscapes and up-to-date instructional resources such as LCD projectors are built-in standards. The entire first floor is designated for English, while digital media, history and foreign languages are taught upstairs.

Students breezing through one of Wing E’s seven entryways will be greeted with the bright aroma of “brand new school” smell, something Perales said “we should bottle.”

Finishing touches such as laying glass veneer on the stairwells, coating doors in ocean-blue paint and applying quotes of inspiration to hallway walls signify the final homestretch.

On Friday afternoon, workers perched on scaffolding painted a verbal nugget on the wall by theologian St. Augustine, reading, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

“Words of wisdom, by John Perales,” joked the principal.

Leaning against the windowsill and peering from a prime, second-story perch overlooking the courtyard, Perales continuously reiterates how “blessed” students and staff are.

A handful of colleges he’s visited don’t hold a flame to CHS aesthetics, he observed.

Bulk furniture and large equipment were hauled into the humanities building Monday; some classrooms already flaunt signs of individual character. Reminiscent of gung-ho campers laying dibs on their choice bunk, teachers are carving out their space.

“They’ve been blowing up my phone,” said Perales, of enthused staffers calling to ask, “Can we move in? Can we move in?”

Room E210 has a life-size suit of armor in the corner, a wacky relic property of Athletic Director Darren Yafai, who teaches history.

“He’s had this nightmare since dirt,” said Perales, eyeballing Yafai’s lecture podium assaulted with a maelstrom of colorful stickers. “That’s gonna be in the Smithsonian someday.”

Perales said department chairs were given the privilege of selecting their classrooms first. Chairs then corresponded with teachers, helping to facilitate who settles where.

“This is what he wanted,” said Perales, strolling into a window-less room situated in the middle of the building. Perales turned off the lights, showing off the ideal, dark setting for Digital Media Teacher Mark Carrick’s choice learning environment, or, “little mole hole.”

In terms of individuals skeptical of CHS’s hefty $111 million receipt, Perales says his experience with those opposed to the cost “have been very rare.”

“I wouldn’t have voted for the original plan. I thought the whole concept was very expensive from the start,” said former GUSD Board Trustee Denise Apuzzo.

Having served from 2006 to 2010, Apuzzo underscores plans for CHS were approved prior to her arrival.

But Christopher is a beautiful school, she admits.

“Hopefully it will last forever at that price. It seems to be what the people wanted,” she said. “I wasn’t in on it, and I wouldn’t have voted for it, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter.”

Perales counters the new school is a picture of putting education on a pedestal.

“When you walk through those gates, you know that we mean business,” he said. “I remember when this was a piece of dirt, and now it’s a beautiful building. It makes you feel really good.”

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