Sleuths on the Trail of Student Interlopers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bea Colon lurks on street corners near the Downey public schools, following little children on their way home. Sometimes, to avoid being recognized, she pulls a blond wig over her long black curls or costumes herself like a homeless person.

It's amazing what a school official will do these days to find out where students live.

Brimming with a burgeoning school-age population and fighting to keep classes small, California schools are shutting their doors to students who live outside their boundaries. And as parents, who are making their fall school decisions now, invent clever ways to sneak their children through the back door, schools are taking extraordinary steps to ferret out violators.

The La Canada Flintridge schools hire a private detective to videotape children going in and out of houses, to see if registered students really live there. Schools in Irvine and Beverly Hills require a stack of papers--utility bills, rental papers, bank statements, you name it--as proof that a new student lives within the district.

Those are big-name districts with mighty academic reputations. Yet it is in the humble Downey Unified School District where the enrollment battle has gotten downright ugly.

In a district of about 20,000 students, the schools have found--and thrown out--more than 1,000 out-of-district violators this year, nearly triple the 350 cases of three years ago.

Dismayed over the influx of students it is unequipped to seat, much less educate, the district doubled its number of investigators this year. Four investigators are now reviewing 6,000 suspect cases. They mostly turn a deaf ear to the pleas of students they catch, recently showing the door to an eighth-grader six weeks before his scheduled junior high school graduation.

Downey's determination to push interlopers out is matched by the desperation of parents committed to carving out a better educational life for their kids.

"I expected school officials to catch us one day," said Maria Lopez, who sent two daughters to Downey schools by registering them under their aunt's address. "Every day I worried about it."

But the worry--and the lying and rule-breaking--were worth it, she said. Lopez considered her local school in the Los Angeles Unified School District to be unsafe, graffiti-marred and dilapidated.

Enter Colon, Downey's lead investigator and a woman with a mission. In one swoop on a recent Thursday morning, she kicked out Lopez's children and half a dozen others.

"The district is not willing to pick up their tab," Colon said.

Lopez doesn't blame Colon, but generally the school investigator's popularity with out-of-district parents ranks about even with that of a revenuer hunting down a whiskey still. Colon has had water sprinklers turned on her, doors slammed in her face and even a death threat made as she searched for children who do not belong in her schools.

'It's a Monster of a Problem'

School choice was supposed to be the law of the land, according to California legislation passed in 1994. It was designed to give parents their selection of the best public schools regardless of district lines--as long as they were willing to do the commuting and there were classroom spots available after all resident pupils had been accommodated. Another goal was to prompt schools to compete for students, and the funding they bring, by improving their educational offerings.

But a surge in the number of school-age children and another school-improvement idea--reducing class size to 20 students in primary grades--have sounded a sort of statewide death knell for choice. The last thing most schools are interested in getting is extra students and their avid parents knocking at the door.

"It's a mess; it's a monster of a problem," said Frank Boehler, director of child welfare and attendance at the Orange Unified School District. "We have schools that cannot afford to take one more kid. One more kid in some classes [that are limited to 20], and we have to open a new class."

Even moving to another school within the same district has become difficult. Los Angeles Unified, with an all-time enrollment high of 680,000 students this year, opened only 7,400 seats for such transfers in the fall, down from 22,000 in 1994.

For the past six years, Claudia Velilla has arranged for her mother, a resident of Villa Park in Orange County, to take care of her three sons in the early morning and after school, so the children conveniently attended classes just across the street. Velilla lives in the district, Orange Unified, but within the boundaries of another elementary school. She says school officials approved of the arrangement until February, when she was told her two younger sons had to leave. (Her older son was in a middle school and was not forced out.)

"It was done unjustly," Velilla said. "My mother feels the kids should be able to attend Villa Park because she takes care of them and pays taxes in the area. She has lived there for more than 13 years."

Velilla, a single mother, enrolled all three boys in private school, which costs $800 of her $1,500 monthly earnings as a nanny. She says the district isn't taking into account the complexities of today's family life.

Orange Unified administrators defended their decision by saying Velilla never filled out some needed paperwork, but conceded that even if she had, district schools are out of room even for in-district transfers. The 29,000-student district grew by 1,000 pupils this year.

Most districts, including Orange's, now require suspect parents to prove residency with a pile of documents, such as a driver's license, utility bills, bank statements, rental agreements or escrow papers. Other districts, such as those in Beverly Hills and Tustin, have recently hired more "home verification" staff to catch unwelcome out-of-towners.

Rather than put its employees in the line of fire, the La Canada Unified School District hires a private investigator to videotape the comings and goings of suspect children at certain addresses to verify residency. In virtually every case--close to a dozen this school year--the student is an out-of-towner, administrators said.

"Our residents pay $300,000 to $1 million for their property," said Phyllis Bige, who oversees the district's enrollment. "When you spend that kind of money, you want everyone who lives in your community and sends their children to your schools to belong."

The highly ranked district finds students on its campuses from as far away as Palmdale and Corona, many of them the children of workers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is within the city's borders.

A state law passed in 1992 permits parents to send their children to schools in the city where they work--if there is space and they fill out transfer forms. But in the popular La Canada district, there have been no vacancies in three years.

Top-ranked schools have always had their share of nonresident parents seeking a place where their child could shine. Enrollment shenanigans were especially notorious at schools with top sports programs, where a young athlete stood the chance of being noticed for a college scholarship.

The 1994 state law on school choice came as public school enrollment appeared to be leveling off. Ambitious parents with promising children, many of them in fine but undistinguished schools, began enrolling them in districts known for sending large numbers of students to UC or the Ivy League.

School-Age Population Soars

No sooner did school choice get started, though, than the number of young children in the state began to swell, both from immigration and a strong birth rate. Since 1994, the state's population of school-age children has grown 7% to nearly 6 million.

The final blow for school choice came from a sudden and unexpected source: the state's popular 20-student classes for kindergarten through third grade, which started in September 1996. Schools scrambled to find space on campus for all the new classes they had to create for their own students; taking on other districts' children was out of the question.

But parents were not to be discouraged that easily. Instead of pulling their children out, they invented ways to keep them in. In Beverly Hills, wealthy parents who own multiple properties often try to use the address of a house they legitimately own and pay taxes on within the district, said Barbara Miller, who oversees enrollment at the Beverly Hills School District. But the school officials are unmoved. If the students don't live there, out they go.

"We found one kid living in the Valley but the parent worked in Beverly Hills," Miller said. "When the parent was sick, the kid also stayed home because that was the ride to school."

Such chronic attendance problems are the first signs a student does not live in the school attendance area. Other tip-offs: returned mail, disconnected phone numbers and students overheard complaining about living far away.

Parents commuting from as far as Diamond Bar and San Diego take their children to the Irvine schools, where tests scores consistently surpass state and national averages. Families often rent apartments or use the addresses of co-workers to throw the district off the scent.

In Orange Unified, residents have been known to sublet part of an apartment or house to profit from parents wanting to get a foot in the school district popular for its back-to-basics approach.

"I've seen people rent a room, a couch, even an area under a staircase," said Boehler, the Orange Unified attendance director.

Michelle Murray tried a more honest way.

Last year, she camped out on a sidewalk for two days to snag a spot for her son at Orange Unified's McPherson Elementary, a competitive math and science magnet school that opened this academic year and has a waiting list of nearly 500 children.

Two months into this school year, the family moved to a home less than a mile away. They still own their Orange townhouse, which they have rented out.

They didn't realize, she said, that in moving they were crossing the boundary from Orange Unified into the neighboring Santa Ana district. And she duly notified the school of the change of address.

In March, she said, her fifth-grade son came home with a message from the school: Friday is his last day at McPherson.

"They wouldn't even let him finish out the school year," Murray said. "Instead, the law is to kick out the child when he moves half a mile away."

This year Orange Unified has dismissed close to 40 students; Beverly Hills, 105; and Irvine, 30. But those numbers pale in comparison to Downey's 1,000 ejections and the thousands more pupils to be checked.

Downey might not be known for schools that produce a wealth of top scholars--less than a third of its students take the SAT, compared with 81% in La Canada, according to 1996 state figures. But Downey's combined SAT scores average a respectable 1,009 and its dropout rate is less than a third of Los Angeles' or neighboring Compton's.

Strangers try to bribe Downey residents into letting them use their addresses. A Bell Gardens elected official--school administrators refuse to identify her--was caught lying about her address to get her child into a Downey school. And even a minister was caught and scolded for letting 13 nonresident students use his address. All were kicked out of the schools.

Investigator Armed With Tear Gas

All this investigating of students can be costly. Downey is spending more than $75,000 this year on its one full-time and three part-time investigators, and is still a month behind schedule.

The cost is a source of complaint for some parents who do live within the district.

"I am really disturbed that we have to spend taxpayers' money on investigating people who violate the law, rather than using it in the classroom," said Downey resident John Lacey, who has an eighth-grade daughter in the district.

Some days, Downey investigator Colon spends her mornings following children home from school to see if they live where their paperwork indicates. With repeat offenders, she will don rags and pose as a homeless person to stake out suspicious addresses.

But most workdays, she visits homes in conventional dress, carrying a badge, a clipboard and firm knuckles to knock on doors at 6 a.m., as she did on a recent Thursday morning.

For safety, Colon arms herself with tear gas that she has never had to use, a walkie-talkie to call the district office in case of an emergency and hard candy that she regularly tosses at barking dogs to distract them.

She buzzes the doorbell and bangs on the door immediately. A pause. She buzzes and knocks again. Then a third time.

Finally, a sleepy-faced eighth-grade boy opens the door. Colon greets him with a robust "Good morning" and asks to see four other students who claim to live there. They're not home, they went to the market, he says, his hands trembling.

She proceeds to quiz him on how the others are related to him. He nervously mumbles answers as Colon jots down notes. Finally, she relents and asks the boy to have his mother call her.

"People should not make their kids lie," Colon says as she walks away, fairly certain that the visit will eventually lead to the dismissal of the three students. Indeed, later that week it does.

Parents who have been forced to find new schools for their children accuse the officials of using overbearing tactics to force out youngsters who might have some legitimate place in the district.

One couple recently tried to get a restraining order against Downey Unified in an attempt to stop it from removing their sons. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled against the parents.

And Alice Rodriguez is still stunned by the district's refusal to let her brother finish out the school year.

"They just checked him out of school," exclaimed Rodriguez, 25, the guardian of her eighth-grade brother, Robert, who in April was kicked out of a Downey junior high school, just six weeks before graduation. "They wouldn't even let him stay for the last several weeks so he could graduate with his friends."

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