Most Overcrowded School Also the Most Diverse : Education: Belmont High’s location in Westlake attracts immigrants from around the world. ‘We’re like the Ellis Island of Los Angeles,’ teacher says.


At 12:40 p.m., the race begins.

Hundreds of students bolt toward the school cafeteria, forming lines that snake around the rows of benches crammed in the busy lunchroom.

The crush of teen-agers waiting anxiously for their meal come from all over the world: Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Korea, Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Various languages ring through the room as students chat with friends and pick up trays of fried chicken.

This is Belmont High School--the Los Angeles Unified School District’s most overcrowded school and also one of its most diverse.


“We’re like the Ellis Island of Los Angeles,” said Tony Feliz, the school’s music director.

About a mile west of Downtown near Beverly Boulevard and Loma Drive, Belmont has about 4,200 students--making it the largest high school in California, as well as one of the largest secondary schools in the country. Compounding its problems, Belmont’s 14.7-acre campus is the smallest for a high school in the Los Angeles district.

Overcrowding is just one of the obstacles students and staff confront daily. Because the surrounding Westlake neighborhood consistently attracts immigrants from around the world, the school has a steady and heavy flow of students hoping to enroll or planning to leave before completing the semester. Many do not live with either parent.

Belmont students represent 50 countries and communicate in more than 30 languages, and most speak English as a second language. Nearly three-fourths of the school’s population meet poverty standards qualifying them for free or reduced-priced lunches. And the campus is also in one of the city’s most violent areas.

Alone, any one of those factors could prove overwhelming. Together, they mean unique challenges that Belmont’s students, staff and faculty must find innovative ways to overcome.

“Not only are we the largest school in California, but we’re probably the largest immigrant entry port for students in California,” said Augustine Herrera, who is in his first year as principal of Belmont.


“Instead of getting an education, there’s a lot of pressure for students to earn a living and help their families survive. We have to make sure school is relevant to students and that they consider it a priority.”

Herrera said his staff is now establishing long-range goals for the school, which will address such problems as transiency and language differences. The school is also looking for new ways to relieve overcrowding, although it is already on a multitrack, year-round calendar.

Under the multitrack plan, a third of the student body is always on vacation, leaving 2,800 students on campus at any given time.

Over the next three years, Herrera said, the school will change its curricula to cater to its large immigrant population. Although algebra, biology, health, world history and career planning classes already are taught in Spanish, the school may add more classes in that language to help students with limited English skills.

Belmont’s new curricula will not be patterned after educational programs in suburban schools because its needs and strengths are different, Herrera said.

Instead, the school may create more programs such as the International Studies Academy, which began in 1989 and is designed for honor students interested in learning about different cultures.


“I think we also need to be honest with students who come from other countries and are expected to complete all the course work in four years,” Herrera said. “They need to be told when they come in as freshmen that it’s probably going to take them more like five years to graduate.”

Belmont opened in 1923 with about 500 students. The main building was rebuilt in 1967, and construction on another major addition began in 1990 and is expected to be completed in June. The school’s mostly white student population grew steadily during the 1930s and 1940s, but then its attendance started to dwindle in the 1950s. The school board considered closing the school, but ultimately decided not to.

About two decades after trustees made that crucial decision, large numbers of mostly Latino immigrants flocked to Pico-Union and Westlake to take advantage of affordable apartments, and the school began to grow. Today, about 85% of Belmont’s students are Latino and 13% are Asian.

Because of the massive influx of immigrants, the school board is considering constructing another high school in the area. Although some residents and community groups are opposed to building a new school so close to an existing one, school officials say they must do something to relieve the overcrowding at Belmont.

About 1,900 students who live within Belmont’s attendance boundaries are bused to San Fernando Valley schools because of the overcrowding, while another 600 students are attending other schools to take advantage of various voluntary programs.

Area students who normally are bused to El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, which has been closed since the Jan. 17 earthquake, are not in class.


“Belmont should be the focal point of the community, but it’s not,” said Vicky Castro, a school board member whose district includes Belmont. “That’s because (so many) kids living in the area are going to other schools. The lack of space prevents the school from having any magnet programs, so students have to go to other schools.”

Even with Belmont’s multitrack calendar, students face long lunch lines and crowded classes.

“As much as the teachers and staff try to make the best of the situation, you can’t teach 50 students in one class,” said Chris Van, who graduated from Belmont last year and is now a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

”. . . Teachers gave me personal attention because I sought it out, but they couldn’t give it to everyone because there were too many students in each class.”

Senior William Estrada said he was forced to come to school during his vacation because certain college preparatory classes were not offered on his track due to limited space.

Academically, Belmont lags behind other schools. Its average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores are 378 in math and 299 on the verbal portion, compared to the district average of 432 math, 355 verbal, and the national average of 478 math, 424 verbal. Its dropout rate, Herrera estimates, is between 25% and 30%.


Although large class sizes appear to hinder students academically, Assistant Principal Rosa Morley believes the school’s low test scores are linked more to the fact that so many students speak English as a second language, if at all.

“We try to have realistic expectations for our students,” she said. “Even though their scores are lower, this does not prevent them from achieving. In time, they’ll catch up.”

History teacher John Lachner said teachers do their best, but have trouble juggling jobs as educators and surrogate parents.

“Many students live with relatives, or we get into the ‘cousin’ phenomenon, where students live with whoever they include in the broad definition of cousin,” said Lachner, who also works in the school’s attendance office. “This requires teachers to spend a lot of time nurturing their students because these kids are lost in the shuffle at home.”

The fact that the school operates as if it has a revolving door also poses problems. Although no transiency rate figures are kept, Lachner said he had enrolled 20 new students that day and checked out almost as many others.

“It’s unbelievable. They come, they go, they go back to El Salvador, they come back,” he said. “This requires a lot of flexibility on the part of teachers. It’s impossible for teachers to set a schedule in July because classes change so much.”


Three of the students Lachner enrolled came from South Korea and spoke no English. They were sent to Feliz’s music room after lunch to learn how to play the violin.

“This happens all the time,” Feliz said. “But I use the same techniques that a teacher would use for students who can’t hear. Everything has to be visual.”

Belmont is often considered an underdog when compared to schools in more affluent areas, but some students achieve despite the odds, and consider the school’s diversity extremely beneficial.

“At first when I came to MIT, I felt inferior because a lot of people here went to big prep schools, and I came from an inner-city school,” Van said. “But I found out that although the other students probably have more book knowledge than me, Belmont gave me a taste of the real world. The other students here aren’t as open-minded as me because they haven’t been exposed to as many different cultures.”

Through teamwork and perseverance, the school also has earned a name for itself in areas outside the classroom.

The school is particularly proud of its boys’ and girls’ cross-country teams, which respectively have won 11 and five City Section championships. There are few individual stars on either team, but Belmont consistently wins the team event because so many of its runners place near the top.


“We run together because we want to make the team look good,” said senior Yolanda Gomez, who is one of the best runners on the girls’ team. “We’re like a family.”

But despite the team’s success, few parents watch their children run, reflecting the school’s general lack of parental involvement.

“Our parents are busy with jobs that don’t allow them to take time off,” said cross-country coach Alex Carmona. “A lot of our parents, especially parents of girls, don’t know what cross-country is. They’re concerned about their kids getting home late, so I often call them and try to convince them that allowing their children to run is worth the risk.”

When the school holds a community meeting, usually fewer than 100 parents show up.

When Feliz arrived at Belmont 11 years ago, the band had 20 members. Today, the school’s 95-member band and flag corps are major contenders in various competitions. Last year, the flag corps took first place in the Southern California competition, while the drum line won the same event a year earlier.

“We compete with schools with tremendous programs,” Feliz said. “Our kids were flabbergasted when they went to compete and saw parents of other kids grooming uniforms and polishing shoes. But we’ve developed the confidence that winning is not out of our reach.”

Feliz said he once thought about leaving Belmont because there wasn’t enough support for the music program. Students still have to share instruments, and Feliz is given only $300 a year to purchase new instruments and music. He once bought wooden sticks at Builders Emporium because he couldn’t afford to buy real drumsticks.


“This guy at another school asked me to take over his program,” he said. “He said, ‘Tony, get out of there. There’s nothing you can do for those kids. They’re not going to support a band over there.’ After that, I decided to stay because it made me really mad.”

Although Feliz has grown attached to the school, his job is never easy. Last fall--two weeks before the band was about to enter a regional competition--someone broke into the school and stole $25,000 worth of instruments.

“It was devastating,” Feliz said. “But some of the kids wanted to perform without instruments. They just wanted to march.”

Although the school managed to replace the instruments with money from its general fund, crime remains a constant threat to everyone at Belmont.

The school is in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division, which last year reported 119 homicides, 109 rapes, 3,749 robberies and 3,968 aggravated assaults.