Students of Dwyer Middle School in Huntington Beach meet to discuss plans to protest the installation of solar panels on their PE fields. (Photo by: Tracy Wood)

Monday, January 24, 2011 | On its face, the plan to install solar panels at Dwyer Middle School in Huntington Beach is something that would be applauded by the school’s well-heeled and environmentally aware families.

Not so. The panels, which are scheduled to be installed along one edge of the school’s PE field, threaten a 90-year graduation ceremony tradition, say a vocal group of parents and students.

So the kids — with help from their parents and an experienced activist — are taking to the streets to fight the plan, which has already been approved by the Huntington Beach City School District Board of Trustees. And in the process, they are getting a lesson in activism 101.

“We’ll camp out for three weeks, if that’s what it takes,” said eighth grader Claire Kirksey. “We’re staying out of school” but if the board reverses its decision, “then we would go back to school.”

Kirksey and more than 30 of her classmates are set to start their public protests this week, and spent a recent Saturday discussing picket lines, signs, strategies for garnering community support.

A few shouts of “fight the power” punctuated the planning meeting, along with pizza breaks and sessions on the backyard trampoline.

Parents said opposition to the solar panels presented an opportunity to let students learn first hand how to responsibly petition their government and follow through when decisions don’t go their way.

They are learning how to carry a picket sign, but also setting their own limits on what they can do. For example, they decided early on that mooning administrators would be prohibited.

After reports that students threw wadded balls of paper at construction workers installing the solar panels last week, eighth grader Caroline Wiederkeher said the principal told school leaders it was wrong to be rude to workers who were just doing their jobs.

Respect and Accountability

“How was this country founded?” asked Tim Steed, an activist with the county’s Young Democrats, during the Saturday organizing meeting. “By people who made sure you had the right to petition your government.”

Steed talked about women winning the right to vote by exercising their right to petition their government and how the Civil Rights Movement ended segregation.

“They petitioned the government and they changed the government for the better,” Steed said.

But such action, he said, “comes with respect and accountability.”

Parents like Annelle Wiederkeher, who hosted the event, gave suggestions and promised supplies, but are encouraging the students to do their own planning.

“Everything they ask for,” said Wiederkeher, “I’m going to do my best to do it their way.”

Communications Breakdown

Like so many controversies the tempest over the solar panels was born out of a miscommunication.

The district, which is responsible for nine schools, had been considering solar power for several years, said board member Celia Jaffe, a former head of the PTA, but it wasn’t until about two years ago that the economics made sense.

Chevron Energy Solutions, a division of Chevron, did an analysis of district energy use and made a series of recommendations. Jaffe said the result was an $8 million contract with no possibility of cost overruns and guaranteed energy savings. It’s expected to save the district $15 million over the life of the project.

While four other schools in the district apparently were given details of what would be done at their campuses and, in some cases, worked out modifications, that didn’t happen at Dwyer.

The school’s former principal was supposed to keep parents and teachers informed about the solar project and location of the panels, but parents said they were unaware of details until this fall and Superintendent Kathy Kessler said teachers told her they didn’t know either.

None of the students or parents said they opposed the solar panel project. They just think they are in the wrong place. If built in the planned space, the carport-style panels will be in an area that, for 90 years, has been the setting for eighth grade graduation ceremonies. The project is also cutting into the school’s physical education space.

“It’s going to be like an ugly picture” with the solar panels in the graduation shot, said 13-year-old Kyle Kowalski.

“When we told the government we didn’t need solar panels right in front of our school,” said Erika Polhamus, 13, “they said we could use shade.”

Plans call for the panels to stretch along the grassy area in front of the school, parallel to the entrance path and on the edge of the physical education field.

So far, the students have made posters and taped them to fences and posts around the school. That, said Wiederkeher, provided its own teachable moment.

An assistant to the principal took down the posters and a group of sixth graders said they heard him mutter comments they interpreted to mean he was angry about it.

Wiederkeher said the students became frightened they’d done something wrong and had to be assured that it wasn’t a mistake to protest government actions.

Seventh grader Preston Alvenez said he spoke at a special board meeting this month that was scheduled in response to parent protests about the location of the solar panels. More than 300 parents and students attended the meeting but the board voted to affirm its earlier decision.

“It’s just so surprising they didn’t acknowledge us and care what we think and passed it right through,” he said.

Installation of the panels was scheduled to begin at Thanksgiving, and that, said Jaffe, is what “suddenly caught people’s attention. For a number of them, it was the first time anyone was aware of where the panels were going to be at Dwyer.”

It was one of those cases, she said, where district officials were putting out information, unaware it wasn’t being heard, “kind of a good-faith, cross purposes kind of conversation.”

The primary criteria, she said, for putting the panels in front of the school are cost and ready access to the school’s electrical grid.

Other areas to the side of the school would cost more, said Jaffe.

“I’ve thought about this a ton,” she said. “I’ve read and re-read, walked around the campus several times. I feel very, very sure this is the proper decision for me to make and the proper one for our school district.”

And, she added, “the decision has been made and even reaffirmed. I don’t see further action, particularly involving students — pulling students into it after-the-fact. I’m not a big fan of that.”

And Kessler said now it would be “costly to change the location.”

But the students are unwavering. They are lining up food donations, offers to print picket signs and have contacted the police department to make sure they wouldn’t be arrested as long as no laws were broken.

Corey Childers, who wants to either be a fireman or own a restaurant when he’s an adult, said his mother has pictures of his brothers and sister descending the steps and going through the promotion ceremony on the grass in front of Dwyer.

“I want her to have the same picture of me,” said the 14-year-old. “I just want to fight the power.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Huntington Beach City School District Trustee Celia Jaffe. We regret the error.

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