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Year-Round Schools Are Business as Usual in Crowded Southeast

February 21, 1985|MELINDA BURNS | Times Staff Writer

Rapid population growth has brought major changes to the way schools operate in a cluster of small Southeast-area cities, where the Los Angeles Unified and other school districts are scrambling to cope with overcrowding.

At Miles Avenue Elementary School in Huntington Park, one of the country's largest elementaries, about 2,665 students attend school in three shifts staggered throughout the year.

In three shifts, students at Miles take vacations, eat lunch and go to recess. In four shifts, they attend school assemblies to learn rules on everything from discipline to procedures for trash disposal at meals.

Miles is not unique. Most of the schools in the Southeast area of the Los Angeles Unified School District have been on year-round schedules since 1980 to reduce overcrowding, enabling one-third more students to attend than under a September-to-June schedule.

Fastest-Growing Region

Region B, encompassing schools in South Gate, Huntington Park, Bell, Cudahy, Maywood, Vernon and an area in Watts west of Alameda Street, has the largest and fastest-growing student population of the district's eight regions.

The Lynwood Unified School District and the Montebello Unified School District, which also serves Bell Gardens and Commerce, face similar problems of severe overcrowding--the result of a decade of high birthrates and population growth from immigration into the Southeast area, which serves as a port of entry for Spanish-speaking newcomers to the United States.

Los Angeles Unified district schools in the area have grown by 10,000 students in three years--and the end is not in sight, said Gabriel Cortina, who was Region B superintendent for 2 1/2 years before becoming assistant superintendent for adult and vocational education last week.

The district should treat it as "a full-scale emergency," said school board President John Greenwood. In the past, he said, "we had a lot of other problems to deal with, and overcrowding was just an issue. But it is quickly becoming the issue."

Throughout the '70s, the district was prevented from building new schools in the area by a court order that said such schools would perpetuate de facto segregation. The rapid increase in enrollments also coincided with the failure at the polls of at least two bond measures for school construction.

No Sign of Slowdown

After the order was lifted in 1981, the district crossed its fingers in hopes that school enrollments would slack off, Cortina said, but Region B birth statistics for 1983 showed enrollment would "increase at an incredible rate, creating a giant swell from kindergarten through 12th grade."

Today that prediction is still true. "We're not leveling off. We can anticipate problems to grow over the years," Cortina said. "Unless (school overcrowding) gets front-burner concern with the state Legislature, it is going to be a major predicament."

The district has come under fire from Southeast-area parents and city officials for using "crisis planning" to deal with a problem that was apparent more than 10 years ago.

"We've got a whole period of years now where the education system in this area has failed people," said Bell Councilman George Cole. "There's no real hard plans for how to deal with this."

Bell Mayor Clarence Knechtel compared school overcrowding to a disaster on the scale of an earthquake--with the difference, he said, that "in this kind of disaster, nobody will help us. It's difficult for the students to get an education."

Quality Defended

District officials have defended the educational quality of year-round schools, citing climbing scores on state tests in Region B elementary schools in recent years. A more serious problem stems from the transient nature of immigrant families, Cortina said. Because the newcomers move around, students frequently attend as many as four different schools in the area throughout the year. Many end up without an education.

Ironically, a 50% dropout rate for 10th-graders in Region B schools has kept overcrowding from reaching gargantuan proportions.

Even with the year-round schedule, all of the schools in Region B cities will reach capacity enrollment before June, Cortina said. About 1,450 students already are being bused to other schools outside their cities, and school officials have predicted an over-enrollment of 4,000 by the year 1992--even with the construction by 1987 of five new elementary schools funded by the state and now in the design stage.

Because funds to build additional schools are scarce, Cortina said, "large-scale intermediate measures such as the year-round schedule, busing and other options may be necessary for 20 or 30 years." If the region returned now to a regular nine-month calendar of classes, it would need 17 new schools, Cortina said.

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