WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Driven to Learn : Minority Students Endure Long Days to Be Bused to Westside Schools, but Sometimes They Get Blamed for Campus Problems

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When he was at Carver Junior High in South-Central Los Angeles, ditching class was a part of his weekly routine, said Fernan do Silva. "At Carver, I got fails. The teachers let the kids walk out of the classrooms. They didn't pay attention."

But now that he is bused to Palisades High, Fernando, 17, finds it harder to skip class. "They're a little more strict here," said the 17-year-old sophomore, who now likes going to school and is maintaining a B average. He also works on "Video Tidelines," the campus cable television program.

"I wouldn't have had this opportunity at Jefferson," he said, referring to the high school in South-Central that he might have attended.

Fernando is one of 26,000 students who each day are bused to Los Angeles Unified School District schools in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside.

Some have no choice but to ride across town because their neighborhood schools are filled to capacity. Others are being sent to new campuses for disciplinary or academic reasons.

Some parents send their children to schools such as Palisades High and Paul Revere Middle School in Brentwood because of the schools' independent charters--their administrators can bypass the school district's bureaucracy to implement innovative instructional methods.

Although the school district does not keep precise figures, it is believed that a significant number of the bused students go to schools in such communities as Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Westwood and West Los Angeles.

The students, predominantly blacks, Latinos and Asians, who make the cross-town haul have helped diversify Westside schools and enabled many suburban campuses faced with declining local enrollments to stay open.

But the district's $39-million busing programs are a cause of concern for some Westside residents, who blame inner-city students for violence on campus and graffiti on the walls of neighborhood schools. It's an allegation hotly contested by administrators and the bused-in students themselves.

Busing to the suburbs began in the late 1960s when the school district launched a controversial voluntary busing program to integrate Los Angeles schools. About 9,700 students from minority areas are now bused to Valley and Westside schools as part of various voluntary integration programs.

An additional 16,000 students--including 7,600 elementary school children--are forced to travel to other campuses because their neighborhood schools in areas such as Pico-Union, South Gate and Huntington Park are overcrowded.

Thousands of magnet-school and special-education students also ride the bus, and regular school transfer permits are given to other students who can find their own transportation to schools outside their neighborhoods.

In recent years, the number of bused students has declined as the district's total enrollment has dropped and new schools have been built in areas that were overcrowded. Three years ago, for instance, more than 38,000 students were bused for integration and overcrowding reasons.

But cross-town busing is still a ubiquitous part of the 640,000-student school district, essentially blurring racial distinctions between suburban and inner-city schools.

"The idea of a neighborhood school is a thing of the past," said Don Savarese, an assistant principal at Palisades High School. Out of 1,680 students at the school, 1,176 are bused from South-Central and East Los Angeles. About 80 students are bused in from Topanga Canyon. Some of his students, Savarese added, have never attended a neighborhood school.

A graying population and high housing prices that limit the number of young families who can afford to live in Pacific Palisades contributed to low enrollment at Palisades High during the 1980s. Now, because of busing and the attraction of its charter program, Palisades is near capacity. This fall, a math and science magnet program will be implemented at Palisades, heightening the school's popularity.

The school's demographics have also changed. "Seventy percent of the students are minorities, and 30% are Anglo," Savarese said. "Ten years ago, it was the other way around."

Rising before dawn and riding the bus up to three hours a day is a grueling sacrifice many students are willing to make because, they say, suburban schools are safer and academically more challenging than those in their own neighborhoods.

Until a few months ago, when he got a car, Mario Elias would wake up at 5:30 a.m. to hurry to the bus stop for the hourlong trek to the Westside from South-Central Los Angeles.

Elias, a junior at Palisades High who had been bused since first grade, said he misses the 50-mile round-trip bus ride, which allowed him to catch up on sleep, get in some last-minute studying or play with friends.

"It was my parents' idea to bus me to Palisades Elementary," said Elias, 18. An honor student who works on the school newspaper and radio station and runs track, Elias said he'd probably be in gangs if he had attended the schools in his neighborhood, which are too crowded.

"If I had gone to my home schools, who knows where I'd be now?"

Yet cross-town busing has taken its toll on others. Absences are frequent among students who ride the bus, and teachers say many of them appear sluggish and tired in class. Travel also makes it difficult for the students to participate in extracurricular activities.

And there has been tension among students on campus. Those who are bused in say schoolmates who live in communities such as Brentwood or Pacific Palisades blame them for some of the problems at school, such as fights, graffiti and classroom disruptions.

"I have friends who said they want to go to private schools because they think there are a lot of gangsters here," said Araceli Gandara, an eighth-grader at Revere who is bused to Brentwood from South-Central. Out of 981 students attending Revere, 550, or 56%, of the students are bused from South-Central or East Los Angeles. Revere has a magnet program for gifted students and is also a charter school.

Chad Payton, a senior at Palisades High who lives in Pacific Palisades, agreed with Araceli's assessment.

"Some people feel that there are more gangs because of busing," said Payton, 18. Glancing around the grassy campus courtyard during a break, where students seemed to cluster in groups according to ethnicity, Payton added, "But white people cause their own share of problems too."

Eduardo Caceres, a 10th-grader at Palisades High, dislikes the racial tensions brewing at school.

"There's always some kind of racial conflict," said Caceres, who is bused from East Los Angeles. "Last year, there was a big fight between blacks and Latinos that lasted three days."

School officials said the warring factions later ironed out their differences. Meanwhile, a Human Relations Council was formed, made up of some of the students involved in the fight and student leaders, to resolve conflicts and foster understanding among the ethnic groups on campus.

Although officials say graffiti has always been around, some local residents say it has increased in the last few years, and they blame the bused-in students.

"Accusations were made by a (few) in the community that it came from kids who didn't live in the community," said Pam Bruns, a teacher at Palisades High who also advises the school's newspaper staff and media center.

To let local residents see for themselves that the students are trying to contribute to the community, not harm it, the school has arranged tours and invited volunteers to help out, for instance, in the school's media center. Bruns said the response has been disappointing.

Through campus organizations such as the Latino Awareness Club and the Human Relations Council, "we are trying to bridge barriers," she said. "It takes work, and, of course, there are kids who are uncomfortable with other races, but at least they have an opportunity to work on it and be together. I wish more people in the community had this same opportunity."

Some students, however, still blame busing for tarnishing the image of the campus. "I don't mind the students being bused in, because it doesn't really make a difference to me," said Negin Brokhim, a junior at University High School in West Los Angeles who lives near the school. "But sometimes I see people getting busted for drugs or something, and then I see them getting on the bus after school. That's when I think that they shouldn't have busing."

Damian-Jason Young, a University High senior who is bused from West Adams, said the misdeeds of a few should not spoil the reputation of all traveling students.

"I don't blame people for thinking bused students cause trouble, because some kids who are bused don't take pride in our school," he said. "They trash the school and cause trouble because they know they'll just leave after school. But that's not like me. I take a lot of pride in my school."

Those who are bused reflect a range of academic ability.

"Sometimes, the better students opt to be bused to a school outside of their area. They want to come to schools like Palisades for the educational opportunities, and because they feel it's safer," said Assistant Principal Savarese.

Some officials from schools in South-Central Los Angeles believe that the most academically talented students are being lured away to schools like Palisades High by the magnet and charter programs.

Willard Love, an assistant principal at Jefferson High School, said there is a "disproportionate number" of talented students who transfer from his crowded school to Westside campuses. "Any time you lose your top students, it's disappointing," he said.

Modesta Bassity, a student integration coordinator for Los Angeles Unified, said some South-Central parents simply perceive Westside schools as being better, a contention vigorously debated in the community.

"There are schools in South-Central that have wonderful programs, and parents would fight you tooth and nail if they were told to go to another school," she said.

In any case, the distance between home and school can create problems for students and parents alike.

Most schools provide transportation for students participating in after-school activities. Palisades High offers transportation to parents who wish to attend after-school meetings or activities on campus. Yet officials at the school said few parents of bused students take advantage of this.

"There is a difficulty in getting parents here," said Kathryn Gentry, an assistant principal at Palisades. "They are concerned, but they are tired," she added, because of juggling hectic work schedules and taking care of their families.

Though many students don't mind the long bus ride, the distance is a big concern for many parents, and for some administrators, especially when a child is involved in an accident on campus.

"The other day, a child had a badly dislocated finger, and I had a hard time contacting someone to pick him up," Gentry said. "Last week, a school administrator had to follow an ambulance to UCLA Medical Center because we couldn't locate a parent."

Patricia Munoz-Owens, mother of a 10th-grader from South-Central who attends Palisades High, said that during the school year her daughter Myeshesia's bus has arrived late to the Slauson Avenue bus stop six times.

"One day, my daughter got home at 8:30 p.m. They stopped the bus because someone was smoking marijuana on the bus. But nobody notified parents to let us know the bus ran late. I had to make four phone calls, and when I finally reached the transportation manager at the school, he said he wasn't aware of the incident," Munoz-Owens said.

Assistant Principal Savarese said that given the distances of the bus routes and the number of children being transported, along with other problems such as mechanical trouble and corralling rowdy students, he is amazed the buses were late only six times.

Ironically, Munoz-Owens said, the very element she tried to shield her daughter from by sending her to Palisades High instead of Crenshaw High has become a problem at Palisades.

"Some of those kids who have been kicked out of Crenshaw wind up at Palisades, and they're causing all these distractions by writing on the walls, disrupting classes, starting fights," she said. She said that Palisades, as a charter school, should be more selective in whom it allows to enroll.

Still, other parents and students appreciate busing, in spite of all the hassles.

Gabriel Silva, Fernando's father, said he believes that the Palisades High administration is working hard to keep the campus safe. Being in a new environment, he said, has changed his son.

"Since he's been going to different schools, he has a different attitude," Silva said. "Once he joined the journalism class, he opened his eyes. He's helping out with the video center, and he's keeping good grades to play football. To see Fernando having these opportunities to learn things he can take to college . . . makes me happy.

"I expect a lot of good things from him."

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