The Wiseburn School District, which presently encompasses parts of western Hawthorne, Del Aire and eastern El Segundo, officially formed on March 5, 1896, after a group of area parents successfully petitioned the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to form their own district.
Originally, the district also included parts of Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Lawndale and North Redondo Beach, and was four times larger than it is today.
Over time, neighboring school districts took back some of Wiseburn;’s territory to form and expand their own districts, leaving the 2.5-mile block of territory that makes up the district today.
Wiseburn’s roots were formed with the establishment of a Santa Fe Railroad depot in 1888 near the intersection of 120th Street and Aviation Boulevard near the eastern border of El Segundo. The depot initially was called Burwell Station. K.D. Wise, a prominent farmer nicknamed “Doc,” owned two large warehouses near the station, which led to it being renamed Wiseburn Depot, a combination of “Wise” and “Burwell.” Others credit the Wiseburn name as coming from combining Wise’s name with that of Centinela Valley landowner Sir Robert Burnett. It was inside the Wiseburn Depot that Miss Mabel Close, a ticket agent for the Santa Fe, began teaching a small group of students, mostly children from area farms, in between selling railroad tickets to passengers in the early 1890s.
The rudimentary school formed the basis for the farmers to establish the school district in 1896. Among South Bay incorporated cities, only Redondo’s school district, founded in the 1880s, is older. (LAUSD was founded in 1873.) After its approval, classes continued in the railroad depot until a school building could be built.
A temporary building on land owned by Adolph Leuzinger between 120th and 124th streets served as a first school building. Leuzinger would become one of the district’s champions, serving as on its first board of trustees.
In 1897, the two-room schoolhouse was built at 135th Street and Aviation, on a site purchased for $75. 13 students formed the first class. Dana Middle School later would be built on the site. A $2,130 bond issue passed that year to pay for the new school.
By the time teacher-principal Don Smith arrived in 1929, the school had expanded to four rooms, and employed six teachers. Smith became the district’s first superintendent in 1941, a position he would hold for 22 years. Smith was responsible for calling parents together to form the Wiseburn P.T.A., the district’s first, in October 1941. In the district’s pre-World War II era, many of its students were the children of Japanese truck farmers who lived in the still-rural area. In 1935, 82 of the district’s 125 students were Japanese. That ended when Japanese residents were moved to internment camps during the early days of the war.
During the 1940s, the Wiseburn area beat back attempts to annex it. The Manhattan Beach School District attempted to take over the Wiseburn School District in 1941, and the city of Hawthorne attempted to annex the whole Wiseburn area in 1944. Neither was successful.
After losing its territory to other districts, Wiseburn began to resist all such efforts with more vigor, and, as a result, never gave up any more of its territory after 1951.
With the postwar population boom, Wiseburn expanded, building new schools and facilities. By the late 1950s, it consisted of six schools: Dana Middle School (opened 1946), and the elementary schools Juan Cabrillo (opened 1949), Peter Burnett (1956), Juan de Anza (1956), and the since-closed Jose Sepulveda (opened 1956) and Don M. Smith (opened 1964) elementary schools. The series of bond issues that made the district’s expansion possible eventually began to ire some area voters, who mounted a successful campaign to defeat a bond issue in 1957 and elected a slate of three conservative school board members in 1959. Superintendent Smith was put on leave, and David Everett, an education fundamentalist, was appointed acting superintendent.
The news clippings about Wiseburn from the era reflect the tumultuous nature of board meetings for the next few months. A recall movement began in early 1960, and, in the first and only Wiseburn School district recall election, the three new members were ousted on April 26, 1960.
Adding to the turmoil, the Wiseburn School District offices were destroyed by fire on March 4, 1960. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department ruled that the blaze was set deliberately, but the arsonist was never found. After the recall, Smith returned as superintendent until his retirement in 1963. Stability returned to the district.
Financial woes became a recurrent theme with the collapse of the aerospace job market in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The appointment of former Wiseburn School’s attendee Don Brann in 1993
helped put the tiny district on stronger financial footing. Brann, who held the post for 15 years, managed to grow enrollment in an era of declines, and, in 2007, Wiseburn became the first South Bay school district to pass three consecutive bond issues to rebuild its campuses.
Beginning in 2001, Brann also led attempts to make Wiseburn an independent unified school district and free it from its relationship with the Centinela Valley Union High School District, a necessary one since Wiseburn had never had its own high school. The California Board of Education approved the request in 2004, but legal wrangling by Centinela kept Wiseburn from seceding.
Brann’s successor, current Wiseburn Superintendent Tom Johnstone, kept the
battle alive, though. In 2009, the Da Vinci Science and Da Vinci Design charter high schools opened in western Hawthorne, and Wiseburn students now had an option to attend high schools in their own neighborhoods. In November 2010, voters approved a ballot initiative, Measure AA, that called for a new high school for Wiseburn, to be built on land in eastern El Segundo’s business corridor. Finally, in Feburary 2012, the two districts began the process of separation. In July 2014, Wiseburn officially became the Wiseburn Unified School District. In an unusual arrangement, the new high school will consist of three charter schools operating at the same site: Da Vinci Science, Da Vinci Design, and Da Vinci Communications. The schools will operate independently on three separate floors, but will be known collectively as Wiseburn High.
The athletic teams will compete as the Wiseburn-Da Vinci Wolves. The campus also will include a theater, athletic field, gymnasium, and pool. The pool will operate jointly with the city of El Segundo’s Parks and Recreation Department. The school’s main building is slated to open in time for the 2017-18 school year beginning in September, while the rest of its facilities are expected to be finished by Spring 2018.
The school will house three separate charter schools, but will act as one high school. Much thought has been put into the design of the building to suit modern classroom instruction.
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Daily Breeze files
The History of the Wiseburn School District: 1896-1960, by Jack
Wellington Goode, June 1961, condensed by Jean McDowell, 1996.
Los Angeles Times files