Surreal Estate

The new San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano has all the makings of a state-of-the-art facility—tennis courts; an expansive performing-arts center; track, baseball and soccer fields. But a young freshman could find her trip to the new school's pristine, as-yet-unfinished campus to be, well, a trip.

She might or might not know about the controversy surrounding the school—from the vote by residents in 2002 to not build the school there to the Capistrano Unified School District's decision to go ahead anyway; from how much it has cost (a whopping $140 million) to the lawsuits over the use of race during the drawing of district boundaries. As it stands today, it is nearly complete and has its first signs of wide-eyed freshman life pouring in (fewer students than the district expected enrolled as sophomores, so the school opened with only the freshman class of 600 students). It is, after all, the first school built since 1964 in a district with crowded high schools.

Our freshman's parents will either travel the busy, commuter-heavy Ortega Highway, or continue up Antonio Parkway, and eventually turn onto a steep road known as La Pata. Their cue will be a big, bold sign that reads, County Landfill. As her parents' vehicle worms up the thin, three-lane road, they'll need to pay attention: Power lines jut out from the right, and bright, plastic, temporary dividers line the road. Improvements are being made to the road (although it is not being expanded), but they were not completed before the first day of school last week. It hardly seems like a road built for busy high schoolers—because it wasn't.

Since 1976, the only wheels that have made their way up the mile or so of road were those of dreck-filled dump trucks. The access road was meant for trucks only, trucks that have daily made their way up to the Prima Deshecha Landfill at the end of the road. They've dumped what amounts to a little more than 85 million cubic yards of solid waste into the county facility, about half its maximum capacity.

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The landfill is 1,000 or so feet away from the high school, so our freshman will never have to see it (although up to 4,000 tons of waste can be dumped there per day, so chances are she may see a dump truck or two). Once her parents' car gets to the point in the road where another plant, the Green Waste Biomass Facility, stands brightly to the left, it'll turn right, onto the road that descends down to the massive, shiny home of the newly named Stallions.

No signal light has yet been installed at the new Vista Montana intersection (plans for one are in the works, according to an OC Integrated Waste Management spokesperson), so she and her folks (as well as bus drivers) will have to keep their eye out for those pesky trucks. As they descend the hill, they'll see the 50-acre school complex from above, a glittering, solitary jewel surrounded by acres of grading (slated for 175 homes, which will eventually be built even closer to the landfill), hills and little else. Our freshman will notice a giant soccer field, bracketed on either end by two very tall, high-tension power-line towers. She'll see dozens of crows hovering near the low-slung stone "San Juan Hills High School" sign. (The birds like to munch on landfill goodies.) The state-of-the art track and baseball fields, and the performing-arts center, have yet to be completed. Even so, classrooms here are much bigger and airier than the hundreds of portable classrooms that crowd other district high schools.

She might wonder why the district chose to build the school where it is, instead of a mile or so below, on flat ground and without the risk of traversing such a narrow, precarious road. Or maybe why it cost $140 million, making it one of the most expensive high schools in California (according to the state's Public School Construction website, prototypes for schools with 2,200 to 3,000 kids are listed as costing around $30 million).

Nevertheless, actual, non-hypothetical students at the school don't seem too bothered by their school's atypical locale, the traffic, the power lines or the trucks. "It's nice. It's big," said one San Juan student as she waited for a ride after school. She said the morning traffic hadn't been too much of a problem.

Another student had a different experience. "Aw, it was big, real big," said another freshman of the morning traffic during the first week of school. The San Juan teen is driven to school by his older brother, and he chose San Juan Hills over Dana Point High School because it's brand-new. "It's nice," he said, looking around. But the road is another matter. "It's kind of scary and confusing," he said. "But hopefully, it'll get better once we get used to it."

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