$5 million new look at GHS

A plaque dedicated by the parent club sits on a raised circle in the center of the quad by the new amphitheater.

On a brisk Tuesday morning, more than 1,400 students flooded the newly revamped campus on their first day back to Gilroy High School, which boasts $5 million in upgrades that construction crews scrambled to complete in a matter of 10 weeks.

The facelift marks a milestone – one that some teachers, parents and district administrators hope will mollify the sense of inequality between the aging 1978 GHS campus and the scintillating, $111 million Christopher High School that opened three years ago in the northwest quadrant of the city.

GHS parents and Gilroy Unified School District staffers expressed delighted zeal for the $11.3 million in campus renovations, which include an overhaul of the gymnasium floor and a brand-new practice space for the men’s wrestling team. The renovations in their entirety are scheduled to be completed in two phases through summer 2013.

“It gives a new face to the campus, and lets the students and staff know that we’re making efforts to bring the school up to the best standard that we can,” said Board of Education trustee Jaime Rosso. “We’re moving ahead with continuous improvements, and trying to keep the standards equitable.”

Student reactions, alternately, were a colorfully mixed bag. Comments ran the gamut from apathetic, to praising, to cynical, to appreciative.

“It looks sick,” said junior Anthony Guel. “It looks like Christopher High School, but better.”

(For readers who need a refresher course on young people jargon, “sick” is a trendy euphemism for “cool”).

The circular amphitheater in the heart of campus is a focal point of the upgrades. Once a sloping, grassy bowl that turned into a muddy pig sty during winter – some called it “Lake Gilroy” – the area is now equipped for the seasons with extensive drainage upgrades.

Concrete strips of alternating colors now shoot out from the center, forming a sun-like pattern where each beam is inlaid with metal letters spelling the district’s six “pillars of character,” such as “trustworthiness” and “respect.” Principal Marco Sanchez came up with this particular design element.

Some students, however, weren’t keen on discovering their usual hangout areas have been tampered with.

“I don’t like how it’s all cement-y,” observed self-described “earthy” girl Sam Hernandez, a sophomore who expressed a nostalgic preference for the way things were. “It used to be full of nature. We liked it when it was dirt and grass.”

She was one of several teens touting a not-so-enthusiastic opinion of the renovated campus quad, the nature of which “forces you to sit with people,” said Hernandez.

Whereas the central hub of GHS was previously defined by dirt knolls and randomly scattered tables situated under shady trees, those tables are now gone. Freshly laid sod is now intersected by meandering cement paths, which discourage students from tromping across the green landscape.

Sanchez confirmed that the tables – now sitting on cement surrounding the amphitheater – aren’t returning to their original location. The outdoor furniture tears up the grass and makes mowing the lawn more of a chore, he explained.

A few teens complained about this change. It feels like they’re being deterred from their usual hangout nooks “under the trees.”

“I don’t like how they took the tables away,” said senior Evelyn Vago, sitting with a cluster of friends inside the amphitheater and motioning to the temporarily fenced-off sod.

Still, reactions like this are to be expected, says 17-year-old Deanna Keller.

“When you’ve been going here for four years and everything gets changed around, it freaks you out,” said the senior, offering a diplomatic take on the variety of viewpoints. “I think it looks really nice,” she added cheerfully. “It looks classier and cleaned up. It’s pretty wonderful.”

Many had positive things to say about the sprawling amphitheater. Others praised the crisply applied logo decals depicting the school’s spirited mustang mascot. The decals are splashed in areas of prominence including the outer gym foyer.

“It looks good … for now,” said junior Andy Estrada, alluding to his concern that taggers might vandalize the attractive, attention-grabbing design.

If one overarching reaction was prevalent among a majority of students, many aren’t crazy about the new color scheme, which contrasts blue doors against tan rooftops; previously a shade of what Principal Sanchez called “Smurf blue.”

“It looks like the color of sadness,” observed senior Yaritza Contreras, glancing up at the earth-toned roofs.

Teens say they want to see more use of the GHS royal blue, gold and white hues. Seniors Mia Alvarez, Tanie Lopez and sophomore Malissa Limon suggested enlivening the campus with additional flowers and student art installations.

Transforming a campus

The “extreme makeover” at GHS is only halfway complete.

An opportunity for Gilroy’s oldest high school to molt its “ugly duckling” got under way in January, following impassioned lobbying and advocacy from the GHS Parent Club. The group highlighted the need for $30 million in fix-it issues that included insufficient lighting; “awful carpets;” a broken bell system “that sounds demonic;” a “pool that looks like a swamp;” a clock tower that hasn’t worked in years; a broken marquee; and uneven pavement that causes students to trip.

The Gilroy Board of Education unanimously voted to use $8 million through Measure P – the $150 million school facilities bond locals approved in November 2008 – to modernize GHS. Paired with another $3.3 million in money from the state and state-matched funding for Career Technical Education classes, GHS will get revamped to the tune of $11.3 million.

“It looks like a community college, now, instead of an elementary school,” noted GUSD Facilities Director James Bombacci during a campus tour Friday.

Phase I began this summer and included a re-landscaping of the quad area; erecting an amphitheater with graded steps and places to sit; redoing the gymnasium floor, restrooms and lobby; modernizing all existing bathrooms on campus; giving all the buildings and classrooms a cohesive color scheme; redoing the door locks; building archways over campus entry points to create “a defined entrance”; and renovating the tennis courts (which was helped by a $60,000 donation from garlic mogul Don Christopher).

Workers also did away with the GHS aquatic center’s wading pool, a swamp-like blight Sanchez likened to a “backed-up toilet.”

PMSM Architects, the San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara-based group hired by GUSD to dream up and carry out the renovations, took care to execute large-scale priorities while giving thoughtful oversight to meaningful details.

Workers relocated a special memorial plaque dedicated to U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Jeramy Ailes, a GHS alumni and the first Gilroyan to die in war since Vietnam. Ailes perished Nov. 15, 2004, during house-to-house fighting in a weeklong campaign to root out insurgents in Fallujah, Iraq.

Previously cast on a random concrete strip diverting off the main walkway near the campus entrance, “we thought (the plaque) needed a much more prominent place,” said Anthony R. Palazzo, principal architect and director for K-12 Education Design at PMSM.

The plaque and campus flagpole now sit outside the main administrative office.

Phase I also included approximately $2.7 million in Measure P and state-matched funds that went toward transforming eight old classrooms into four new labs and two new classrooms for Career Technical Education Biomedical Science Academy, a brand-new program that kicked off in fall 2011.

Superintendent Debbie Flores calls these new classrooms “a science teacher’s dream.”

Phase II of construction will begin in summer 2013. This entails alarm upgrades; roof repairs; theater renovations; sound attenuation in the student center; a multi-use athletics room and classroom upgrades – something GHS history teacher Guido Zvigzne is looking forward to.

“What we really need is to get the insides of the classrooms fixed,” he said, underscoring the need for new carpets, new desks and re-vamped interiors.

Zvigzne is anticipating fall 2013, when the classrooms are “looking nice and clean and sanitary, so the cockroaches stay out.”

While the first round of renovations served to boost the morale of staff and students, Zvigzne said there is still progress to be made in terms of quelling perceptions of inequality between the two high schools, along with dispelling GHS’s reputation as a “ghetto” school. The term has been used by some students in the past to describe the campus.

Still, GHS Athletic Director Julie Berggren says the facelift is a major step in a positive direction.

“I think the (students) are going to feel welcome and have some pride in their campus and community that they live in and know that the district cares about this campus,” she said. “It’s the best way to start the new year.”

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