The rumbling sound of idling school bus engines broke the pre-dawn quiet on a street behind South Gate High School's playing field. The noise signaled the start of another long day of school for Carmen Rodriguez, 16, and scores of other high school students.
If things were normal, Rodriguez would be attending South Gate instead of standing at the school bus stop at 6 a.m. But things have not been normal at South Gate for years.
Last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District bused more than 500 students out of South Gate because the year-round school exceeded its maximum of 3,189 students. This year, Jim Alther, South Gate's dean of students, estimates that the number transported may reach 1,000.
Rodriguez and more than 120 of her fellow students are bused 30 miles away to Pacific Palisades High School, a distance that frequently takes more than an hour to cover through congested city traffic. They leave South Gate at 6:15 a.m. and return at 4:30 p.m.
"If I were going to school at South Gate, I would still be asleep," sighed Rodriguez as she prepared to board the bus.
Instead, she is up by 4:30 a.m. to prepare for school, rarely taking time for breakfast. Her sister, who works at a paper factory nearby, drops her off in time for the bus. "It's important to be there on time, because if you miss the bus, you miss school," she said.
Sleeping on Bus
On the ride to Palisades the bus is crowded, with students frequently sitting three to a seat. For some, the ride is a chance to complete homework. Others use the time to chat with friends or listen to music over radio headphones. Some sleep.
This is the first year Palisades has been among the schools that receive the more than 13,000 students from all over the district who are bused to relieve overcrowding at schools like South Gate.
Most of the students bused out are new arrivals to the predominantly Latino neighborhood who failed to register early enough to secure a place at South Gate.
"There are options for these students," said Theodore Alexander, assistant superintendent of the district's student integration office. He said many of those who were turned away were given the option of attending nearby Locke High School, an inner-city school with a reputation for gang violence, or of attending Pacific Palisades High School, an integrated school with an excellent academic record in an affluent area.
"Going to Locke would be like committing suicide," said Robert Twobulls, a 16-year-old student. "I would rather be at South Gate, but Palisades is OK. Everyone seems nice but they do dress and talk a little funny. They talk like surfers. They say things like, 'For sure, dude,' and a lot of them walk around all the time with backpacks on their backs like they are sewed on."
Variety of Students
Twobulls' sentiments were echoed by several students who rode the back of the bus one recent morning. "It's nice because there are so many different types of people going there," said Ilsia Molina, 16. Even if space became available at South Gate, "I think I would like to stay," she added.
Some traveling students, however, were less enthusiastic about going to school at Palisades.
"I don't like going to Palisades. I want to be at my home school where people are friendly," said Joseph Emory, 17, a senior who said he wanted to graduate from his neighborhood school where he had more friends. Emory said he attended South Gate last year, but had to transfer to Palisades after he failed to register on time for his final year.
He complained about the long hours he is forced to keep because of the commute. He also said one of his teachers criticized him for falling asleep in class. "She yelled at me for sleeping in her class," he said. "I tried to tell her that I have been up since 4 a.m., but she just didn't understand."
Pacific Palisades High School Principal Gerald Dodd had a special teachers' orientation at the start of the school year to "sensitize" his staff to the special needs of the students from South Gate.
He said that bilingual specialists have been hired to help students with limited skills in English. Additional buses have been acquired to let students and parents attend extracurricular activities on the campus. And he said that the district was providing $50 per student to help pay for tutors or other expenses if needed by the students.
Palisades is no stranger to busing. For years, the school's successful busing program for integration has helped bolster its enrollment, which has dwindled as private schools siphoned off some students and as the high cost of housing prevented many families with children from moving into the area. Almost half of Palisades' 1,700 students are bused in.
Stephanie Naftule, one of the students who actually lives in the Palisades area, said she welcomes the new students who were bused. "If it weren't for these students, there would not be a Palisades High School because there are not enough Palisades students here to support the school," she said.
Although the school year is still young, there have been some problems in busing students from South Gate.
"Some are having difficulty with their attendance," said Joan Simpson, a Palisades administrator who supervises the students who are bused to the school. "They are here today and gone tomorrow. They often say that they can't make it on the bus."
Simpson said she is still trying to sort out enrollment figures and does not know yet whether any South Gate students have dropped out because of the long commute. "We are registering new students almost daily," she said.
Dodd said that some of the problems will be worked out as the busing program continues. "We feel that Palisades has something to offer the students, something more than just providing them with housing in a classroom," Dodd said. "But success won't happen overnight."
Thus far Rodriguez likes her new surroundings.
"I like the school a lot," she said. "South Gate is much closer, and it would be better for me. But for now, Palisades is a good place to go to."