Rapid population growth has brought major changes to the way schools operate in a cluster of small Southeast-area cities, where the Los Angeles Unified and other school districts are scrambling to cope with overcrowding.
At Miles Avenue Elementary School in Huntington Park, one of the country’s largest elementaries, about 2,665 students attend school in three shifts staggered throughout the year.
In three shifts, students at Miles take vacations, eat lunch and go to recess. In four shifts, they attend school assemblies to learn rules on everything from discipline to procedures for trash disposal at meals.
Miles is not unique. Most of the schools in the Southeast area of the Los Angeles Unified School District have been on year-round schedules since 1980 to reduce overcrowding, enabling one-third more students to attend than under a September-to-June schedule.
Region B, encompassing schools in South Gate, Huntington Park, Bell, Cudahy, Maywood, Vernon and an area in Watts west of Alameda Street, has the largest and fastest-growing student population of the district’s eight regions.
The Lynwood Unified School District and the Montebello Unified School District, which also serves Bell Gardens and Commerce, face similar problems of severe overcrowding--the result of a decade of high birthrates and population growth from immigration into the Southeast area, which serves as a port of entry for Spanish-speaking newcomers to the United States.
Los Angeles Unified district schools in the area have grown by 10,000 students in three years--and the end is not in sight, said Gabriel Cortina, who was Region B superintendent for 2 1/2 years before becoming assistant superintendent for adult and vocational education last week.
The district should treat it as “a full-scale emergency,” said school board President John Greenwood. In the past, he said, “we had a lot of other problems to deal with, and overcrowding was just an issue. But it is quickly becoming the issue.”
Throughout the ‘70s, the district was prevented from building new schools in the area by a court order that said such schools would perpetuate de facto segregation. The rapid increase in enrollments also coincided with the failure at the polls of at least two bond measures for school construction.
No Sign of Slowdown
After the order was lifted in 1981, the district crossed its fingers in hopes that school enrollments would slack off, Cortina said, but Region B birth statistics for 1983 showed enrollment would “increase at an incredible rate, creating a giant swell from kindergarten through 12th grade.”
Today that prediction is still true. “We’re not leveling off. We can anticipate problems to grow over the years,” Cortina said. “Unless (school overcrowding) gets front-burner concern with the state Legislature, it is going to be a major predicament.”
The district has come under fire from Southeast-area parents and city officials for using “crisis planning” to deal with a problem that was apparent more than 10 years ago.
“We’ve got a whole period of years now where the education system in this area has failed people,” said Bell Councilman George Cole. “There’s no real hard plans for how to deal with this.”
Bell Mayor Clarence Knechtel compared school overcrowding to a disaster on the scale of an earthquake--with the difference, he said, that “in this kind of disaster, nobody will help us. It’s difficult for the students to get an education.”
District officials have defended the educational quality of year-round schools, citing climbing scores on state tests in Region B elementary schools in recent years. A more serious problem stems from the transient nature of immigrant families, Cortina said. Because the newcomers move around, students frequently attend as many as four different schools in the area throughout the year. Many end up without an education.
Ironically, a 50% dropout rate for 10th-graders in Region B schools has kept overcrowding from reaching gargantuan proportions.
Even with the year-round schedule, all of the schools in Region B cities will reach capacity enrollment before June, Cortina said. About 1,450 students already are being bused to other schools outside their cities, and school officials have predicted an over-enrollment of 4,000 by the year 1992--even with the construction by 1987 of five new elementary schools funded by the state and now in the design stage.
Because funds to build additional schools are scarce, Cortina said, “large-scale intermediate measures such as the year-round schedule, busing and other options may be necessary for 20 or 30 years.” If the region returned now to a regular nine-month calendar of classes, it would need 17 new schools, Cortina said.
Southeast-area overcrowding is only part of the picture districtwide. The surging birthrate in the greater metropolitan area will bring more than 70,000 additional students to the Los Angeles Unified district in the next five years, district officials say. Ninety-five schools in the district are on the year-round schedule and most of them are seriously overcrowded.
Land for schools is hard to come by, especially in the cluster of small, overcrowded cities that make up Region B. And every vacant lot destined for a school means the loss of needed tax revenue from commercial development.
Some facts and figures illustrate the scope of the problem:
- Enrollment at three of the region’s high schools has reached capacity, with 3,617 students at Bell High School, 3,692 at Huntington Park High School and 3,084 at South Gate High School. To relieve overcrowding at those schools, at least 1,200 students are bused daily to six high schools in Watts, the San Fernando Valley and Lomita.
About 250 students are bused from elementary schools in Region B that have reached maximum enrollment, Jackson said.
- Just to keep up with the influx from predominantly immigrant families, the district adds about two classrooms a week to area schools all year long.
- In one square mile in Huntington Park, more than 12,000 students attend a high school, a junior high and two elementaries--"an astounding number,” Cortina said.
- Kindergarten enrollments are “phenomenal,” district officials say, with 455 students in 13 classes at Stanford Avenue Elementary, 436 in 15 classes at Miles, 330 in 12 classes at Middleton Street Elementary and 325 in 12 classes at Elizabeth Street Elementary. Each of these schools has a total enrollment (kindergarten to fifth grade) of more than 2,000.
At least 90% of children born to an area attend school there, district officials estimate. That means that of the 9,100 children born in 1983 in Region B, more than 8,000 will enter first grade five years from now. The 40 schools there are largely filled, and the entering class in 1988 would have 1,000 more students than the current kindergarten has.
Birthrates for Southeast-area cities have been well above the county average for at least five years. Between 1978 and 1983, births in Region B rose from 6,973 to 9,099, a 30% increase, district statistics show.
The birthrate represents “a very, very serious problem,” said James Withorne, chief boundary coordinator for the district. “I don’t think many people are aware of the magnitude of it.”
Nor is the problem confined to the Los Angeles school district. Schools in the Bell Gardens area of the Montebello Unified School District, serving Bell Gardens students and secondary students from Commerce, also are overcrowded on year-round schedules.
Montebello school officials recalled that Colmar Elementary School in Bell Gardens was built in 1969 to house 750 students, but only 500 enrolled the first year.
“We thought we really fouled up,” said district Business Manager Walt Hogle. Today, Colmar is nearing capacity enrollment on the year-round schedule with 1,158 students. As many students are housed in portable classrooms on the school grounds as in the building constructed 16 years ago.
The last new school in Region B of the Los Angeles school district was Park Avenue Elementary, built in Cudahy in 1968. In the past five years, the district has added new classroom buildings at Miles, Middleton and Corona Avenue elementaries.
“Providing adequate housing will be the biggest single problem of the district for the next five years,” said Dick Caldwell, deputy controller of finance. “The number one priority of the district is to get money to build as many schools as we can.”
The year-round school “is here for some time to come,” Caldwell said, but will not be a permanent feature of the Southeast area. “Temporary might be five years, 10 years . . . Who knows how long it will take us to come up with a permanent solution?” he said.
Caldwell recalled that in the ‘50s, the district was building a school a month in the San Fernando Valley to accommodate a burgeoning population there. Ironically, today many of those schools are under-enrolled or closed for lack of students.
Shortage of Land
Compounding the shortage of money for new schools in the Southeast area is a shortage of land to build on.
In the Lynwood Unified School District, about 2,800 students attend a high school built for 1,200. More than a year ago, the district received a $32-million state grant for a new high school and then became embroiled in a dispute with the city over the school’s location. To date, no land has been chosen for the site.
“This (the student population boom) is happening where it’s already built up,” Withorne said.
The state recommends 15 acres for elementary schools of 1,000 students and about 45 acres for high schools, said school facilities planner Roger Friermuth, but those recommendations are not feasible in Region B.
Besides, he said, Southeast-area cities cannot afford to give up land that might bring in substantial revenue as a commercial development. The region qualifies for state funding for either a new junior or senior high school, Friermuth said, and the district has discussed the location of such a school with every city.
“They say, ‘That’s great, but don’t build it here,’ ” Friermuth said.
Southeast-area residents have criticized the district for failing to build schools when enrollments began to climb more than 10 years ago. Alternatives, including year-round schedules, busing and boundary changes, are “crisis planning,” parents have charged.
Parents also complain of the disruption to daily routine. Because of the year-round schedules, students at most schools are divided into three shifts. With two shifts in school at all times, including the summer months, families often are unable to take vacations together. Day care, often handled during the traditional summer vacation by older brothers and sisters, is also disrupted.
At the high school level, not all the academic courses and extracurricular activities are offered on every shift, forcing some students to attend classes and sports practices during their vacations.
Busing to relieve overcrowding has added as much as three hours to the school day of high school students. Huntington Park City Councilman Tom Jackson complained that the housing redevelopment projects in the city have been hurt by the district’s poor planning. Prospective condominium buyers lose interest when they find out that their children will be bused outside the city to attend school, Jackson said.
Progress Pointed Out
But former region Supt. Cortina has defended the district’s measures, pointing out that double sessions and classes of between 40 and 50 students--common features of Southeast-area schools from 1973 to 1979--have been eliminated. The district also has stopped adding portable classrooms to schools in the area, Cortina said. And today, class size is kept near 27, he said.
“We’ve done everything possible within existing resources,” Cortina said. “We certainly don’t want to go back to the solutions of 10 years ago, stuffing the classrooms with numbers that are impossible to teach.”
But Jackson and many others are not satisfied.
“I don’t think the school board has understood the problem (of overcrowding) as it was happening,” Jackson said. “Now they say, ‘Oh yes, you have a problem.’ But they can’t do anything with it. We’re just a stepchild down here.”