For years, the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District has operated like two separate worlds.
In one, thousands of children rise before dawn and board buses to schools up to an hour away, where lessons are delivered in a language they barely understand. And others are crammed into year-round schools, where 1,000 children might vie for space on a 2-acre playground.
In the other, children attend their neighborhood schools from September to June, and fill their summers with family vacations, art and horseback-riding lessons and camping trips. Their schools boast computer equipment and science labs, often supported by parent donations.
The two worlds have spun in separate orbits until recently, when increasing overcrowding in the inner-city schools has sent more minority children on buses to the suburban classrooms.
And today, the two worlds could finally collide, when the school board grapples with the prospect of putting the entire 610,000-student district--the second-largest in the nation--on a year-round schedule to relieve overcrowding in the district's core.
Some say the plan would make the district whole by spreading the responsibility and the burden for educating all its students.
Others say it would unfairly punish a dwindling middle class for the district's failure to adequately plan and provide for the needs of inner-city and immigrant children, and in the process push many of those middle-class families out of public schools.
"It's the kind of momentous decision that could either divide us or unite us," said board member Leticia Quezada. "It . . . will once and for all say whether we're going to be one school district."
The plan the board will consider would convert all the district's schools to year-round by next year, creating more than 60,000 seats to accommodate growth in enrollment estimated at about 15,000 students per year--growth concentrated primarily in the city's central and southeast areas.
The proposal, developed by district staff and endorsed by Supt. Leonard Britton, calls for 109 elementary schools--mostly uncrowded campuses in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside--to be the first to go year-round, beginning this summer.
Its proponents point out that more than a quarter of the district's students--most of them Latino or Asian--already attend year-round schools and that the system has demonstrated some educational and financial benefits.
But the plan has drawn fire from parents throughout the district, who say it would disrupt families, force children to suffer in un-air-conditioned classrooms and lead to further decline in rapidly eroding support for Los Angeles' public schools.
While few parents quarrel with the district's need to increase space, many hanker for the chance to develop their own plans to increase the capacities at their schools--and threaten to abandon the district if they are not given that chance.
And while most board members privately admit that year-round operation seems the most viable way to create enough seats to hold all the district's students, they are loathe to impose such a drastic plan on schools that are not yet overcrowded.
"The difficult decision the board has to make isn't whether they're going to do something, but whether they're going to mandate that the entire district does the same thing," said Mike Dreebin, who teaches at year-round Hoover Elementary and heads a teachers union committee on year-round.
"Are you going go tell these schools what to do, or are you going to . . . let them decide. If you tell them, you have uniformity, but it's a political risk."
That political risk was demonstrated two years ago when the board voted 4 to 3 to convert the entire district to year-round, then backed down in the face of parental opposition and threats of recall.
This time around, at least three of the seven board members--Mark Slavkin, Julie Korenstein and Warren Furutani--have publicly expressed support for allowing neighborhood schools more autonomy in deciding whether to go year-round.
But others, notably Rita Walters, insist that the school board should decide what is best for the entire district and impose that solution on all schools.
Today's meeting is expected to last well into the night, as board members--driven by competing interests, inevitable in a city with a cultural and economic mix as diverse as Los Angeles'--wrestle with the challenge of serving their constituencies, while doing what is best for the district.
"It's very difficult because each of our areas has different problems, different points of view," said Korenstein. "At the same time, we have a district that's incredibly overcrowded, and we have to come up with some way out."
The year-round controversy has been called the district's most divisive issue since mandatory busing splintered the community a decade ago.
Then, white families left the district by the thousands rather than allow their children to be bused to minority neighborhoods under a court-mandated plan to integrate the district's schools.
Opponents of year-round deny that their objections are motivated by racial considerations, but there are obvious parallels to the busing controversy:
Most of the seats created in suburban schools under the year-round plan would ultimately hold minority children, bused from neighborhoods where growth will continue to outstrip the space available. And much of the opposition to year-round schools is centered in the Valley, which spawned the campaign that overturned busing.
Through the 1970s, as the busing case wended its way through the courts, white enrollment in the district dropped by about 16,000 each year.
After the 1977-78 school year, when the state Supreme Court upheld mandatory busing, about 31,000 white children left the district, and another 20,000 left the next year, when the busing program started.
When mandatory busing ended in 1981, the drop in white enrollment slowed dramatically and leveled off at about 4,000 a year.
Meanwhile, enrollment figures among Asian and Latino students were registering tremendous gains, primarily because of a higher birth rate and increased immigration, and those students were concentrated in central city neighborhoods that are generally considered ports of entry.
These trends transformed the district during the last 20 years from 50% white to more than 85% minority today.
Some parents opposed to year-round argue that it would trigger a similar exodus among white families--which many characterize as "middle-class flight" rather than "white flight"--leaving the district unable to deliver an integrated education to any of its students and costing it many of the financial and personal resources those middle-class families provide.
"I think this is going to drive us more toward a two-tiered education, where you have folks in private school, and the people in public school are there because they don't have the money to go to private school . . . and that's not what we want," said Pam Bruns, one of the leaders of a parents group serving students in the Pacific Palisades area.
Bruns said many parents in her neighborhood plan to enroll their children in private schools if they are forced to go year-round. It's not a question of white flight, she said; many schools in the Palisades area already have as many minority as white students because so many children are bused in from overcrowded areas.
"The question for most parents is, 'Can my kid get his needs met educationally in my school?' If he can, he'll stay there; if not, he'll go somewhere else."
Many parents have lost confidence that "this big bumbling district" can carry off something as ambitious as converting all 600 of its schools to year-round without education suffering, Bruns said.
"This district is driven by the overcrowding issue," she said. "I don't see any educational goals and expectations articulated. . . . All they're talking about is housing, and it's hard to have faith in a system that hasn't addressed educational issues for a long time."
Critics cite the fact that the district is now operating in what district officials call a "crisis mode"--overcrowding is so bad that the system may be out of space for children before this semester ends--as evidence that the planning process has been botched.
"The district could have built schools in some of these areas to accommodate these children, but they made the wrong choices," said Carol Smith, an attorney with Legal Aid, which is suing the district, charging that it spends less money per child in minority neighborhoods than in its suburban areas.
"You have to think of them as a business, and they made bad business decisions when it comes to dealing with overcrowding."
Now the district is faced with the need to get a plan in place by April so that families, school administrators and teachers will have three months to adjust to the changes. Officials admit that is barely enough time.
Parents also fear that during the first year of the plan--when 109 schools could go year-round, but the remaining 400-plus would still be on traditional schedules--life would be impossibly chaotic as they try to arrange makeshift plans for child care and recreation, and face the possibility of having siblings at different schools on different schedules.
But district officials point out that parents in many overcrowded neighborhoods have faced those same problems for years, and found them bothersome but not insurmountable.
Currently, because the district uses six different calendars--one traditional and five year-round--there are thousands of families with children at different schools on different schedules. About 140,000 children attend the district's 102 year-round schools.
"If you're a parent in a year-round neighborhood and you want one child to go to a magnet, you have almost no chance of having your (other) children on the same schedule," said Gordon Wohlers, head of the office handling year-round planning.
"If one child attends the neighborhood school and another (cannot because of lack of space and) is bused out to a two-semester school, they have no chance to be on the same calendar.
"What you're doing now to parents and families who, through no fault of their own, attend a year-round school . . . is preclude a common calendar for siblings if they desire one of these (special) programs. Our attempt here is to allow more, not fewer, students to go to school on the same calendar."
Protesting parents also complain that most of the schools slated to go year-round this summer lack air conditioning and the district has no money to provide it, meaning students might have to suffer through summer classes in stifling heat.
But many inner-city schools had to go year-round without air conditioning, and most endured several years of hot classrooms before the expensive cooling systems could be installed. "Do these parents (complaining now) think they're the only ones who worry about their children" sitting in hot classrooms, said Walters, who represents an area with many year-round schools.
There is no doubt that as schools go multi-track year-round, established routines will be disrupted and sacrifices will have to be made.
Some of the first-graders at Dixie Canyon Elementary in Sherman Oaks might have to drop out of their Brownie troop if they no longer attend school at the same time.
The highly touted Great Books program, run by parent volunteers at Westwood's Warner Elementary, might reach fewer students because of conflicting schedules.
Car-pools might be dismantled, best friends separated, popular teachers unavailable to students on different tracks and outside summer enrichment programs out of reach.
But the most dire worries--of families split, with children on different tracks and an inability to plan child care and enrichment activities--would be minimized if the entire district went year-round, officials say.
School populations probably would be assigned to tracks geographically, so neighbors could attend on the same schedule, and efforts would be made to keep siblings, even in different schools, on the same tracks.
But while the plan to put all the district on the same calender would eliminate some of the problems that year-round families face now, it might create others.
The 90/30 calendar, recommended to replace other year-round calendars currently in use, creates fewer seats than some other schedules.
It increases school capacity by about 33% at multi-track schools, while the schedules used by a third of the current multi-track elementaries increase capacity by 50%. The calendar change next year could generate a surplus of children in those schools.
"The question would be what would you do with all these kids," wondered Dreebin, the Hoover teacher. "Put them on the bus and send them to some of these year-round schools in the Valley that will now be multi-track?"
The 90/30 calendar was selected, in part, because it most closely resembles a traditional schedule. Schools on a single-track schedule--which would be most of the district--would begin in August, after a six- to seven-week summer vacation, and hold class until a mid-winter break, which would begin just before Christmas and last through mid-February.
A single-track schedule does not generate additional seats, but would allow the entire district to conform to a single calendar and pave the way for conversion to multi-track if overcrowding worsens.
Studies have had mixed findings on how year-round attendance has affected academic performance. A state Department of Education analysis found test scores of students in single-track schools equal to or better than those of students at traditional schools, but multi-track students performed below predicted levels. However, those results probably were influenced by the fact that multi-track students are typically poor or minority and may speak little or no English.
Anecdotal evidence from local year-round teachers suggests that the shorter vacation breaks improve retention of information, particularly among younger students.
But the district has made no pretense of trying to sell year-round as an educational strategy. It is, pure and simple, a question of finding enough seats in a district that is growing by 15,000 students a year, and making the most of meager financial resources.
Although only a fraction of schools across the country are year-round, the concept is spreading rapidly as districts struggle to find more efficient ways to operate schools and deal with overcrowding problems.
Most of the country's year-round schools are in California; about 9% of the state's 4.7 million students attend year-round schools, and state officials expect that to rise to 20% by this fall. Locally, districts in Glendale, Hawthorne and the Santa Clarita Valley are among those discussing a switch to year-round.
Even more may convert in coming years, if the state adopts the governor's plan to sweeten financial incentives to year-round schools and offer them first dibs on construction and air-conditioning funds.
The year-round proposal itself has costs attached to it, as do the other options spelled out in the plan before the board.
It costs between $115,000 and $230,000 more to operate a school multi-track year-round, including increased maintenance, utility and staffing expenses. Central air conditioning costs about $1 million per school and can take a year to install.
Portable classrooms, which many single-track schools would have to use to increase their space, can cost the district more than $100,000 apiece and take about 18 months to install, primarily because of the time-consuming state architectural review process.
District officials say some of those costs would be offset by savings in the transportation program. It costs about $1,400 a year to bus a student from an overcrowded school, and about 7,000 fewer students would be bused under the year-round proposal.
But, in a district seeking to cut about $150 million from its budget next year, those expenses represent real obstacles to making any plan work.
Many of the parents protesting year-round and the board members pondering how to make it work hope the current controversy will focus attention outside of the district, on the state and federal funding processes that, they say, can hamstring a system as complex and diverse as Los Angeles'.
"It makes us look at how we are going to meet the needs of the urban children and the new immigrant children," said Pacific Palisades' Bruns. "We can't be expected to do this by ourselves. Our state elected officials and the Congress have to look at the problems.
"It's not just L.A. Unified, it's Dade County, it's Texas, it's New Mexico. . . . We share common problems with other areas that are impacted by new immigrants. To meet all the needs in this district by ourselves . . . that's going to be impossible."
CANDIDATES FOR YEAR-ROUND SCHEDULE These are the 109 Los Angeles Unified School District elementary schools slated to go to year-round or double sessions in July if the school board adopts the superintendent's plan to relieve overcrowding.
Bellagio Road, Bel Air
Brentwood Science Magnet, Brentwood
Canyon, Santa Monica Canyon
Castle Heights, West Los Angeles
Hancock Park, Fairfax
Kenter Canyon, Brentwood
Open School, Fairfax
Overland, Rancho Park
Paseo del Rey Fundamental Magnet, Playa del Rey
Shenandoah, West Los Angeles
West Hollywood, West Hollywood
Loyola Village Magnet, Westchester
Dublin Avenue Fundamental Magnet
HOLLYWOOD / LOS FELIZ AREA:
SAN FERNANDO VALLEY:
Arminta, North Hollywood
Balboa Gifted Magnet, Northridge
Bassett, Van Nuys
Burbank, North Hollywood
Canoga Park, Canoga Park,
Carpenter, Studio City
Chandler, Van Nuys
Coldwater Canyon, North Hollywood
Dixie Canyon, Sherman Oaks
El Dorado, Sylmar
El Oro Way, Granada Hills
Fenton Ave., Lake View Terrace
Fernangeles, Sun Valley
Hart, Canoga Park,
Hazeltine, Van Nuys
Kittridge, Van Nuys,
Monlux, North Hollywood
San Fernando, San Fernando
Sherman Oaks, Sherman Oaks
Strathern, North Hollywood
Valerio, Van Nuys
Vintage Fundamental Magnet, Sepulveda
97th Street 107th Street
South Shores Magnet, San Pedro
Crestwood, San Pedro
Lomita Fundamental Magnet, Lomita
Normont, Harbor City
EAST LOS ANGELES / EAGLE ROCK AREA: