At Jefferson Elementary School in the Sunset District, contractors broke ground last month on a $4.1 million renovation project aimed at rendering the school compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Alpha Bay Builders is installing a ramp at the school's official entrance at 1725 Irving, where a flight of six steps previously denied entry to wheelchair users.
The thing is, almost no one enters the school from Irving.
"They all enter from 18th Avenue," says Carrie Widener, a special education teacher who worked at Jefferson for five years until last month. Everyone — mail carriers, FedEx, UPS, various cargo deliveries, and more than 90 percent of adults delivering and collecting kids — uses the 18th Avenue entrances. There, she explains, the school has two entryways about 40 feet apart, each stair-free and each heavily used. And, oh, the 18th Avenue entrance is in compliance with the ADA, which stipulates that a site's wheelchair-accessible ramp must, "to the maximum extent feasible, coincide with the route for the general public."
Teachers and parents suggested to officials at several meetings in late 2007 that they merely change Jefferson Elementary's street address from 1725 Irving to an available 1300 number on 18th Avenue, hoping that by such action the school could skirt the requirement to modify the Irving entrance and save the school district millions of dollars. Parent Lee Shea and kindergarten teacher Gail Kabat recall that district representatives considered the idea briefly, jotted it down, but eventually opted against it.
District spokeswoman Heidi Anderson says a change of address would have been virtually impossible due to prohibitive costs and logistics. Anyway, the district had its mind made up. "That ramp was going in regardless of the address of the school," she says. Building the ramp, she explains, will give wheelchair users access to the rear entry of the auditorium, which faces Irving. The primary entrance to the auditorium is inside the school.
The ADA specifies that wheelchair ramps must lead directly to accessible parking and passenger loading zones. Thus, installing the ramp will require entirely rebuilding parts of the sidewalk to provide a wheelchair-friendly scenario — something that already exists just around the corner on 18th Avenue.
No matter. Alpha Bay Builders will soon be knocking down a long brick wall and tearing out a four-year-old native plant garden and several hop vines to make way for the cement ramp. Inside the school, too, nearly every doorway will be smashed out and widened by an inch or so to better accommodate the school's wheelchair-using population, currently numbering two.
And remind us — who will use the new Irving Street wheelchair ramp?
"I don't know," Widener says. "That's a good question. They'll just use 18th. They always have."