Construction begins; Ortiz Elementary named for Latino civic leader

Antonio Simental wants to be an astronomer someday and search for life on other planets or in faraway galaxies. On Tuesday, the fifth-grader wore a hard hat, held a shovel and helped celebrate a landmark closer to home — a new school whose namesake would urge Antonio to keep shooting for the stars.

"Martin liked to say, 'All things are possible,' " said John Ortiz, the brother of Martin Ortiz. "'Anything is possible.' That's what he would say."

Though he died at age 89 in 2009, Martin Ortiz will live on in the name of Wichita's newest school — Martin Ortiz Elementary School at 33rd North and Arkansas.

The district broke ground Tuesday on the school, the first to be funded by a $370 million bond issue voters approved in 2008. It will be built on the site of the former Arkansas Avenue school at 3361 N. Arkansas.

"This school will have a tremendous impact not only on our community, but on this neighborhood and the future of our students," said superintendent John Allison.

The $7.6 million school is intended to address growth in north Wichita and help relieve overcrowding at nearby Cloud Elementary. It will accommodate about 450 kindergarten through fifth-grade students.

It also is the first Wichita school to be named for a Latino leader. Martin Ortiz spent his teen years traveling the country as a Depression-era hobo before returning to Wichita to become the first Hispanic student-body president at North High.

He later founded the Center for Mexican American Affairs at Whittier College in California to encourage Latinos to attend college. He was known at Whittier as "El Jefe" (the boss), and several of the center's events are known as "The Ortiz Programs."

Several members of Ortiz's family attended Tuesday's groundbreaking ceremony at the site of the new school.

"With the naming of this school, we are grateful that Martin has finally come home," John Ortiz said. "Through this legacy he will remain with us, to inspire people for years to come."

The school is set to open for the 2012-13 school year.

Antonio, the 10-year-old who served as a student ambassador at Tuesday's ceremony, said he hopes his 3-year-old sister will someday attend Ortiz Elementary.

"It will be nice to have a new school," he said.

After the ceremony, Pam Tucker, Martin Ortiz's niece, posed for pictures with other family members amid the reddish dirt and heavy machinery of the school-in-progress.

"We don't say, 'Cheese,' " she told the photographer. "We say 'Ortiz.' "

And everyone smiled.