A Tale of 2 Schools Bound by Busing

Times Staff Writer

It is 7 o'clock on a school night in the central city. Union Avenue School, home to 2,000 students by day, is dark now except for the cafeteria, where about 40 Latino parents and their children are gathered.

Five days a week, more than 100 Union Avenue children rise at dawn to board buses that take them to Pacific Palisades School, roughly a 45-minute ride away. But tonight, a part of the Palisades school has been bused to them. The principal, two teachers and a handful of Palisades parents have come to conduct a special PTA meeting, part of an effort to bridge the gap between the two schools.

Though forced busing in Los Angeles ended four years ago, it is still a reality for these children because Union Avenue, already on a year-round schedule, is unable to accommodate more students. However, Pacific Palisades, like most Westside schools, has room to spare.

But tonight there is a slight problem. The Eastside parents have packed the left side of the brightly lit cafeteria and left the other side conspicuously empty. The unoccupied seats happen to be on the side where the podium and microphone are set up.

So, a few minutes before the meeting begins, two Palisades women quietly move the podium closer to the crowd.

In a way, the scene says a lot about why the meeting is necessary.

"It's very important we make these two communities one," said Kitty Kovacs, a Palisades parent who was present that night. "The (Palisades) people who don't feel that way pulled their kids out two or three years ago and haven't come back. But the parents who stayed want this to work."

"We're fighting a perception that people on the Westside want to get rid of these kids," said another parent, referring to recent newspaper accounts about parents at other Westside schools angered by the influx of students--mostly minorities--from the inner city. "This meeting is a positive effort to make the best of a difficult situation."

Pacific Palisades elementary is located in a pleasant neighborhood of $300,000 houses with well-tended lawns. The main school building is a Spanish-style, white stucco structure with a terra-cotta roof and decorative blue-and-yellow tiles. On top of the school tower is a weather vane.

A few blocks away lies the main business district, which the locals in this affluent coastal suburb affectionately refer to as the Village. The Santa Monica Mountains are within view and the Pacific Ocean is five minutes away by car.

In contrast to this small-town setting, Union Avenue School and its environs are gritty and plain. A series of drab buildings with rusty chain-link fences and graffiti on the walls, the campus is situated off busy Beverly Boulevard, less than two miles from downtown Los Angeles. It lies in the heart of school board member Jackie Goldberg's district, which has the most severe overcrowding problem of any region in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Surrounded by low-rent apartments, the school serves a community that is predominantly Spanish-speaking. Many residents are recent immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico.

The largest elementary school in the area, Union has an overflow of 600 students which it distributes among a dozen schools on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley through the district's "capacity adjustment" program to relieve inner-city crowding. According to district integration guidelines, the receiving schools must be no more than 60% minority, although the school board recently raised the ratio to 70% for a few schools (including Charnock Road and Mar Vista on the Westside).

First Day Chaos

Pacific Palisades began receiving students from Union Avenue three years ago. About 40 students dribbled in during the spring of 1982. But 100 arrived on the first day of the fall term that year--with no warning. Most of them spoke little or no English and came without identification or school records.

"It was instant chaos," recalled Pam Bruns, then PTA president.

The school did not have enough teachers or textbooks, "not even enough desks or chairs" to accommodate the extra pupils, Bruns said. It also had no certificated bilingual instructors. "The only reason we survived at all was because the PTA provided bilingual parents," but there weren't enough to go around.

It did not take long for parents of the local students to rebel. "The sudden influx of students with severe deficiencies in English disrupted classes," Bruns said, "so the community started reacting adversely. They wondered how the educational program was going to be affected."

A month after the fall term began, Bruns wrote a letter to regional Supt. Warren L. Juhnke, saying the parents felt "victimized by the school district's insensitivity." She relayed the parents' demands for funds to hire bilingual teachers and aides and to buy bilingual materials. They also asked for health records on the new students to make sure they had received the required inoculations.

But district officials were slow to respond. At one meeting, according to some Palisades parents, an official sneered that the parents were "afraid of catching communicable diseases." Seven weeks after the start of the fall term, three white families withdrew their children from the school and enrolled them in private schools, Bruns said.

Unpleasant Reputation

According to an official who asked not to be named, the Palisades parents quickly established an unpleasant reputation around district headquarters. But Bruns defends the group's efforts. "When we objected and demanded more services and more money, we felt we weren't smiled upon," she said. "We were seen as an adversary and resistant to receiving the kids, and that was not the case."

To some observers the Palisades controversy was no different from the battles that took place during mandatory busing, when white parents feared that the quality of education would be harmed by the push for equity. But Bruns insists that the parents wanted both equity and excellence. "That's not easy when the funding is not adequate," she said.

Some parents had another motivation: During the years of mandatory busing, the school's enrollment declined from a high of about 600. It never recovered. By 1983, only 240 local students were attending the school. Without the Eastside children, many Palisades parents feared that enrollment would fall below 300, low enough to place the school in danger of being closed.

This year, 111 students out of the enrollment of 420 are from Union Avenue. Fifty-three are new this year and 58 returned from the previous year. An additional 86 students are bused to the Westside campus from other parts of the city as part of voluntary integration programs. The school now is 39% Latino, 49% Anglo, 5% Asian and 7% black.

Although she did not want to be identified as saying so, at least one parent believes that enrollment would increase if the busing of overflow minority students were to end. "There are zillions of kids around here and zillions of private schools," she said. "I hate to say this, but if you took away the bused kids and guaranteed they wouldn't come back, that school would fill to capacity. It would fill in pretty fast."

The Eastside parents stayed out of the controversy; several who were interviewed were not even aware it existed.

Perhaps that was because their involvement in the school has been minimal. Often, the reason is purely financial: They cannot afford to leave work and come to school for meetings, or they lack transportation. The Palisades, after all, is 30 miles away.

Bus Returned Empty

During the first year of the overflow program, Principal Gerald E. Dodge arranged to send a bus to the Eastside to bring Latino parents to a school advisory council meeting. The bus returned empty. "So we thought, why not go out there?" he said.

Bruns organized a successful meeting at Union Avenue last November. Another one took place in February. That meeting was attended by two board members, Goldberg and Alan Gershman, the Westside representative. Both applauded the effort, although Goldberg had some doubts about what it accomplished.

"I applaud the efforts of the people from one part of Pacific Palisades School to have good contact with another part of Pacific Palisades School," she said. "It is extremely important that the issues and concerns of parents of children who travel great distances to come to that school are addressed. To some extent that occurred. (But) there seem to be two parallel organizations, as opposed to one organization including both groups of parents." She said the next step should be to get Union Avenue parents "involved organizationally" as officers and members.

Bruns said she has been trying to find a parent who could represent the Eastside community at PTA meetings but thus far has been unsuccessful.

At the Union Avenue meeting, parents were divided into small discussion groups led by two bilingual volunteers. Some parents said they were worried about the safety of one of the bus stops, located in front of a hotel where drug activity is believed to take place.

Others had questions regarding homework. One mother said her fourth-grade child can't do her homework because she doesn't know enough English. The father of a third grader who had the same complaint said it would help if teachers sent instructions home in Spanish so that non-English-speaking parents can lend help with assignments.

As a result of the meeting, Dodge said that teachers will begin to provide homework examples in Spanish this week.

According to Principal Dodge, 100 of the Latino students have limited proficiency in English. They spend 30 minutes a day in an English-as-a-second-language laboratory and receive an additional 20 minutes of English instruction in their classrooms.

Language lab coordinator Virginia Hales said most children spend one to two years in the program. But for students who recently arrived in this country, progress is especially slow. A survey of Palisades students showed that 27 were from El Salvador and 11 were from other Central and South American countries, including Guatemala, Honduras and Chile. All of them attended an American school for the first time in 1981 or after. "It takes many of these children several weeks before they can learn because they are in such a state of culture shock," Hales said.

Struggle to Adjust

For most of the teachers, there was also a struggle to adjust. "At first, a lot of teachers thought the kids were a threat," said Elaine Yates, who evaluates children thought to have learning disabilities. "Here was this amorphous group of children with tremendous needs and different educational goals. (The teachers) didn't know what to expect."

"You have to provide for kids who are above grade level and those who aren't. That's where the stress comes in for me as a teacher," said Marcia Beaird, whose second-grade students range in ability from primer level to the end of third grade.

Several teachers who were interviewed said they felt pressure from local parents to make sure that their children were not being short-changed. According to school records, Palisades students are high achievers; 13% are classified as mentally gifted. But because of the language problems they face, most of the Latino students from the Eastside tend to perform below their grade levels. (The exception is in math, where many of the Eastside children do well. "Math is a universal language," said teacher Marvin Freedman.)

If scores from the standardized California Test of Basic Skills are any measure, the Palisades parents have nothing to fear. According to Dodge, the scores have remained consistently high and, in some cases, higher than the district norm.

Teachers say there have been few racial conflicts. Anglo students on occasion have called Latino students "beaners," and fights have ensued. One teacher told of disciplining a white student who called a Latino classmate a "honky." (The student obviously was unfamiliar with racial epithets.)

Bruns said anyone who thinks that the children have not noticed racial differences is "pretty ignorant." But she thinks the school has been successful at "working past those things."

Dodge also believes that integration is working. His only lament is one that is all too common in schools today.

"Any rough spots we have are because we don't have the funding," he said. The school does receive extra funds for the Latino students--$50 each plus $251 for every pupil identified as "limited English proficient." But that is not enough. If he had the money, he said he would hire six or seven bilingual teachers and expand the English program. But bilingual instructors, he noted, are in short supply all over the school district.

Palisades parents have helped by volunteering time in the classrooms, Dodge said. The school has 100 parent volunteers who serve as aides or work individually with students in the English-as-a-second-language program. "A lot of our parents are making a heroic effort to meet the needs of these kids coming to our school," Bruns said.

In her view, all the children are getting a good education. "It does take extra effort," she said. "I don't think the district sees that. But I wouldn't have my child anyplace else."

Grateful for Opportunity

For the most part, the Union Avenue parents say they feel grateful for the chance to send their children to school in the Palisades. Juana Maria Pacheco, the mother of a fourth grader who has ridden the bus to the Palisades for three years, said her daughter, Jean Angie, "has learned more than other kids who go to Union and are in the same grade." She said it doesn't bother her to have to put her child on a bus to get a better education.

As for the Latino children, the verdict was unequivocal. Like others who were interviewed, fifth-grader Mercedes Zetino said that given a choice between Union Avenue and the Palisades she would choose Pacific Palisades.

As she rode to school early one morning, she told a reporter that she liked riding the bus, and she liked the school. But she couldn't say why--or, if she knew, she wasn't telling. She just giggled and shrugged and watched the scenery change.

Finally, she came up with an answer.

"It's better," she said and settled down for the rest of the ride.

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