It is 7 o'clock on a school night in the central city. Union Avenue School, home to 2,000 students by day, is dark now except for the cafeteria, where about 40 Latino parents and their children are gathered.
Five days a week, more than 100 Union Avenue children rise at dawn to board buses that take them to Pacific Palisades School, roughly a 45-minute ride away. But tonight, a part of the Palisades school has been bused to them. The principal, two teachers and a handful of Palisades parents have come to conduct a special PTA meeting, part of an effort to bridge the gap between the two schools.
Though forced busing in Los Angeles ended four years ago, it is still a reality for these children because Union Avenue, already on a year-round schedule, is unable to accommodate more students. However, Pacific Palisades, like most Westside schools, has room to spare.
But tonight there is a slight problem. The Eastside parents have packed the left side of the brightly lit cafeteria and left the other side conspicuously empty. The unoccupied seats happen to be on the side where the podium and microphone are set up.
So, a few minutes before the meeting begins, two Palisades women quietly move the podium closer to the crowd.
In a way, the scene says a lot about why the meeting is necessary.
"It's very important we make these two communities one," said Kitty Kovacs, a Palisades parent who was present that night. "The (Palisades) people who don't feel that way pulled their kids out two or three years ago and haven't come back. But the parents who stayed want this to work."
"We're fighting a perception that people on the Westside want to get rid of these kids," said another parent, referring to recent newspaper accounts about parents at other Westside schools angered by the influx of students--mostly minorities--from the inner city. "This meeting is a positive effort to make the best of a difficult situation."
Pacific Palisades elementary is located in a pleasant neighborhood of $300,000 houses with well-tended lawns. The main school building is a Spanish-style, white stucco structure with a terra-cotta roof and decorative blue-and-yellow tiles. On top of the school tower is a weather vane.
A few blocks away lies the main business district, which the locals in this affluent coastal suburb affectionately refer to as the Village. The Santa Monica Mountains are within view and the Pacific Ocean is five minutes away by car.
In contrast to this small-town setting, Union Avenue School and its environs are gritty and plain. A series of drab buildings with rusty chain-link fences and graffiti on the walls, the campus is situated off busy Beverly Boulevard, less than two miles from downtown Los Angeles. It lies in the heart of school board member Jackie Goldberg's district, which has the most severe overcrowding problem of any region in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Surrounded by low-rent apartments, the school serves a community that is predominantly Spanish-speaking. Many residents are recent immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico.
The largest elementary school in the area, Union has an overflow of 600 students which it distributes among a dozen schools on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley through the district's "capacity adjustment" program to relieve inner-city crowding. According to district integration guidelines, the receiving schools must be no more than 60% minority, although the school board recently raised the ratio to 70% for a few schools (including Charnock Road and Mar Vista on the Westside).
First Day Chaos
Pacific Palisades began receiving students from Union Avenue three years ago. About 40 students dribbled in during the spring of 1982. But 100 arrived on the first day of the fall term that year--with no warning. Most of them spoke little or no English and came without identification or school records.
"It was instant chaos," recalled Pam Bruns, then PTA president.
The school did not have enough teachers or textbooks, "not even enough desks or chairs" to accommodate the extra pupils, Bruns said. It also had no certificated bilingual instructors. "The only reason we survived at all was because the PTA provided bilingual parents," but there weren't enough to go around.
It did not take long for parents of the local students to rebel. "The sudden influx of students with severe deficiencies in English disrupted classes," Bruns said, "so the community started reacting adversely. They wondered how the educational program was going to be affected."
A month after the fall term began, Bruns wrote a letter to regional Supt. Warren L. Juhnke, saying the parents felt "victimized by the school district's insensitivity." She relayed the parents' demands for funds to hire bilingual teachers and aides and to buy bilingual materials. They also asked for health records on the new students to make sure they had received the required inoculations.