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The Shrinking School

Chromium-6 worries have parents pulling kids from Davenport's Pacific Elementary School.

By Jessica Lussenhop

On Monday afternoon, a warm, faintly metallic smell wafts into the library of Pacific Elementary School in Davenport, where a dozen parents are assembled for the weekly meeting recently instituted by school Principal Sharon Smith to address concerns about chromium-6 at the nearby Cemex cement plant.

"There's chemicals everywhere!" laughs a parent, half-heartedly."I think that's just something burning," says Smith, without cracking a smile.

The smell is coming from the room next door, where the school has its Food Lab, a kitchen in which kids learn about healthy foods. It's also the room where three machines are grinding noisily, collecting samples of the air to later be read for the presence of chemicals. It's just one of several changes that have taken place since elevated levels of the carcinogen chromium-6 were found on school grounds this summer.

Outside, the children play Frisbee on a verdant lawn with a much larger air sample machine whirring on the sidelines. Down a hill from the playing field is the school's Life Lab garden, where the students' lettuce crop came up beautifully, but was then discarded pending soil test results.

Then of course there's the increasing number of empty chairs--seven students have left permanently since the start of the school year, and Smith says that three are gone solely because of the chromium-6 issue. Two students have been pulled from class indefinitely. Smith estimates that another three families are considering leaving permanently, and four additional families are considering pulling their kids for an undetermined amount of time. "It's hard on the children especially. They're really sad not to be here," says Smith, who's been at Pacific for 25 years, as principal for 10. "I'm alarmed for our school. If we lose enough students, we'll have to make some significant changes."

Smith says that nearly half the school's 100 students are from outside the district, driven in by parents who like the focus on experiential learning, the picturesque location and the award-winning programs on healthy eating and lifestyle.

But with Cemex's fugitive dust potentially blowing through a stand of eucalyptus trees onto the school property, parents are now pulling kids in the same spirit in which they enrolled them. "It's really frustrating to have had our focus on health, and then to be told our air quality is not safe," says Smith.

The stress levels in the meeting run high as parents ask questions about everything from the manufacturing process to the trustworthiness of the agencies running the tests. One parent, who asks not to be named, wants to know when the kiln will be fired again so that he can pull his kids and move his entire family to stay with friends further away from the plant. "We just want to give ourselves time and space," he says. Cemex hasn't made it clear when the kiln will start up again, other than to say it will happen after Dec. 1.

Another parent, Nancy Calhoun, begins to cry as she expresses her concern over the trustworthiness of the scientists testing the air and soil. Like her, many parents simply don't trust the latest batch of numbers that have come out showing safe levels. "We took our kids out of school waiting for good science; this isn't good science," she says, her voice shaking. "I do not trust these people."

Smith, whose granddaughter is in the fourth grade at Pacific, says she is not concerned for her own health and finds the recent test results reassuring, but says she will continue to serve as a liaison between her school's parents and the litany of organizations involved in clearing up the air, the dust and rumors swirling around Davenport.

"To find out your child is breathing unsafe air, it just makes you angry," says Smith. "I totally respect the parents' wide range of reactions. But I'm very sad about the parents who've left. I really highly regard them."

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