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Jack Smith

He hopped from high school to high school, but his heart belongs to Belmont

November 26, 1986|Jack Smith

The other day I went to a lunch at Belmont High School for people working in or with Focus on Youth, which aims to cut the rate of student dropouts.

Having barely escaped dropping out myself, I am sympathetic with anyone who is forced to do it.

I say "forced" because I have an idea that most students who drop out don't do it simply out of boredom or rebellion.

They are usually too sick on drugs, too academically frustrated, too poor or too pregnant to go on. Many can't speak English.

We met before lunch in the school library, which was decorated with student art. We had walked down long halls past large student-painted murals. We had seen no graffiti, no trash in the halls.

The school's clean look can be attributed in large part to its upbeat principal, John Howard, whose impressive accomplishments at Belmont were reported recently in The Times Sunday Magazine.

Howard has turned Belmont around from a typical inner-city high school to a showplace on the idea that people can and will do what is expected of them.

"The story of Belmont," he said, "is that people can be better."

Of course my heart is in Belmont because I was graduated from it in the Class of Summer '34.

The original orange brick Romanesque building has been replaced by an undistinguished building that erased the front lawn. It had been indeed, as we sang in our alma mater, "a school of beauty rare." But from its setting on Crown Hill the school still commands a view of the Civic Center and City Hall, only a mile away.

It is also possible to see Belmont from the new towers of downtown Los Angeles. My Belmont classmate Carl Hartnack, who became president of the Security Pacific National Bank, once invited me to his office in the bank's tower at 3rd and Hope streets. The building had been set in at an angle, and from his office in the top northwest corner, we looked down on Belmont's playing field. I have never doubted that Hartnack had the building angled that way so he could contemplate the scene of his alma mater's athletic glories. Like so many of us graduates, he never went to college. He went straight from Belmont to a job with the bank, as a teller trainee, at the princely salary of $17 a week,

His story illustrates the critical importance in this country of a high school education. Our expectations have risen. Today we believe a college education is our birthright.

But first things first.

Howard came into the library to talk to the Focus people. It is a basic tenet of their program that principals must be involved. Howard is a short but somehow tough-looking man with silver hair.

He told them it was a mistake to think of our immigrants as a problem. "We must think of them as an opportunity."

In that sense, he has plenty of opportunity.

Of Belmont's 4,500 students, 76% are Hispanic, 19% Asian; 1,700 (who speak 25 languages) take English as a Second Language. Of those who start in the ninth grade, 68% drop out.

Jose Colon, Focus project director, pointed out that many Belmont students come from rural schools in Mexico or Central America, in which they probably didn't get through the sixth grade. "They don't even know their ABCs."

I had a hard enough time graduating myself, though I had the advantage of speaking, writing and reading English well. I changed high schools five times, coming back to Belmont three times. I was always behind the class. In my junior year my father's business failed. It was the bottom of the Depression. I went to Long Beach to live with my sister and enrolled in Long Beach High School. On March 10, 1933, the school was destroyed by earthquake. School was out. Later, I went back to Belmont.

Sad story. But it was a snap compared to the trials of today's immigrant students. I didn't touch drugs. I didn't run with a gang. I didn't have to work to support my family. I didn't get pregnant. And I had the magic wand--I knew English.

Focus is trying to help students who have to handle all those disadvantages. It has begun with a modest pilot program. In its first year, it enrolled 100 high-risk students at Belmont and 100 at Manual Arts. (It also has programs in those two schools' junior high and elementary tributary schools.)

At the end of that year 96 of those 100 Belmont students had stayed in school, said Ignacio Garcia, Belmont school counselor. At Manual Arts, 92 stayed in.

Focus (in affiliation with the Los Angeles Educational Partnership) seeks to draw on private and public resources and services to help students at high risk of dropping out. It works between the community and the school staffs.

We had lunch in Chez Belmont, the home economics-class dining room. Howard said some of the students have learning disadvantages, but they're learning to work in hotels and restaurants.

"They're good workers," he said. "You tell them to do something and they do it until you tell them to stop."

"The proof is in the pudding," said Colon.

Actually, the proof was in the pumpkin pie.

After the lunch the students filed in to stand before the guests like the kitchen staff of some ritzy hotel.

Someone asked, "Who made the pie?"

They all raised their hands.

In the words of our alma mater, " 'Enter to learn, go forth to serve,' is our motto that will endure."

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