Passing periods at Belmont High School used to mean pushing your way through a hall teeming with students. Now, it is a leisurely stroll.
The storied campus perched on top of a hill on the fringe of downtown was once the largest high school in the state and one of the biggest in the country. It was also the most crowded. Built to hold 2,500 at most, it peaked at 5,500 students.
But today, it could use a few more.
Over the last decade, enrollment has plummeted with the construction of nearby schools by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Pair that with the emergence of charter schools and enrollment has dwindled to less than 1,000 students.
“It’s a calm campus now,” said Principal Kristen McGregor. “Everybody can walk to class without feeling like they’re swimming upstream.”
But while the drop in population has led to academic gains and a more manageable campus, it has also cost the school some of its long-held traditions and character. Teachers and administrators hope more students could help the campus regain some of what it has lost.
The new Belmont is split into three academies with different areas of focus: medical and public service; multimedia; science, art and green engineering. Teachers know all of their students by name and everyone gets a chair. There’s enough space on campus to house a middle school, charter school and another high school.
To students from years past, it’s an unrecognizable Belmont.
When the school opened in 1923, it had about 500 students. By the 1950s, enrollment began to dwindle and the Los Angeles school board considered closing the campus. But four decades later, enrollment had ballooned to about 5,500.
Students poured into Belmont’s hallways and stairways — becoming a traveling mass of momentum between classes, said Teresa Salguero, who attended the school in the 1980s and has taught Spanish there since 1992.
“It was scary,” she said. “It was like you were caught in a wave — you just had to go with it.”
To address the overpopulation, the school operated on a year-round schedule, with about a third of students on vacation at any one time. In addition, Los Angeles Unified School District bused thousands of would-be students to less-crowded campuses in the San Fernando Valley.
Immigrant families have long landed in Westlake, the neighborhood surrounding Belmont, and that diversity still shows today. English is a second language for about a third of the students at Belmont, where 18 languages are spoken. The school’s entire student body meets poverty standards and therefore qualifies for free or reduced-priced lunch.
“I tell the kids, this place is like the Statue of Liberty,” Salguero said.
Vicky Castro, a former school board member whose district included Belmont, said the crowding had hindered the campus from establishing itself as a community hub for all residents because so many students were bused elsewhere.
“It was a community in crisis for schools,” she said. “There were many students who never attended their home school.”
The year-round schedule also drew criticism, as it called for a shorter school year, but longer days. Students received the same amount of instruction, but it was squeezed into 163 days rather than the standard 180.
Board member Monica Garcia, whose district includes Belmont, said this method cheated the students who needed the most help by providing them little personal attention and fewer days in the classroom.
“It was the epitome of educational malpractice,” she said, adding that the community eventually pressured the school district to act more effectively.
In 2001, the district responded by embarking on an ambitious, $20-billion school construction program. Three facilities were built to relieve Belmont: Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts; Miguel Contreras Learning Complex; and the infamous Belmont Learning Complex, now named the Roybal Learning Center, which opened in 2008 as one of the most expensive high schools ever built because of environmental issues, construction delays and other problems.
Belmont High benefited greatly from the drop in enrollment and the creation of a small-school structure, administrators and teachers say.
Since the enrollment decline began in 2001, the school’s Academic Performance Index score, based on standardized test results, has risen. While its latest score of 668 still falls short of the state’s 800-point goal, it has gone up more than 175 points since 2002. Similar gains have been seen at the new schools in the area.
Despite the improvements that come with a shrunken population, McGregor said she would like a couple of hundred more students — an unexpected desire considering the school’s history, she admits. “I think it would be healthier for the campus,” she said.
The split into three academies and smaller numbers eroded some traditions — the things that Belmont clung to through the ups and downs. In her first year at the helm, McGregor brought back letterman jackets for athletes. She hopes eventually to resurrect the award-winning marching band, now disbanded. She’s also working to restore to prominence the school’s cross-country team — once a source of great pride.
On a recent morning, Heather Donnelly, 15, beamed as her teacher used a diagram she had drawn of homeostasis in the pituitary gland as an example to the class. “So does that mean it’s right?” she asked, earning a nod from her teacher.
The houses and apartment buildings of Westlake and Pico-Union were visible through the fourth-floor windows behind her. The two neighborhoods, among others, comprise the so-called Belmont Zone of Choice, an area that once fed only into Belmont High School but now consists of 17 school choices on four different campuses, all of which compete for students.
Heather chose Belmont over other options in part because her siblings went there, but mostly for its science academy, which she touts to future students during visits to neighborhood middle schools.
Luring more students could help build a school spirit like the one from the old days, the first-year cheerleader said. “But the people we do have here — everyone is here together,” Heather said. “There’s a lot of school pride.”
With shiny new schools not far away and a difficult-to-shed reputation as a dangerous and low-performing campus, Belmont remains a tough sell at times. And yet Salguero said that perception couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Belmont is a special place. There’s something special about these kids,” she said. “All they need is a little guidance and a little support and they can do anything.”