Bell Gardens High School teacher Tom Jones recently roused his startled economics students from their studies by swiftly kicking the bungalow wall.
"See this?" Jones asked, pointing to a small hole about six inches from the dirty, wood floor. "It's from termites." The thin plywood wall failed to keep the cold out during the winter and the heat out the rest of the year, he added.
"It's either a sweatshop or a refrigerator in here," Jones said.
Outside another classroom, school psychologist Stephen Magness pulled at a window that had been nailed shut for at least five years. The window frame partially gave way, leaving Magness with a handful of dry paint chips that he wiped away with a quick clap of his hands.
"Some classes are worse than this," said Magness, who runs a counseling center at the high school for at-risk students, many of them from poor Latino families.
Serves 31,000 Students
Welcome to Bell Gardens High School, the school that has changed faster than any other in the Montebello Unified School District. The district serves 31,000 students in Montebello, Bell Gardens, Commerce and parts of Downey, East Los Angeles, Monterey Park, Pico Rivera, Rosemead and South San Gabriel.
Once the smallest of the district's three comprehensive schools, Bell Gardens High is now the most crowded and has the heaviest Latino student enrollment, the result of a decade of Latino migration to Bell Gardens and nearby communities.
Sometimes referred to as the "stepchild" of the district, Bell Gardens High School is the campus most in need of repairs. It was the school that drew the most complaints during a school board debate over whether to build a new high school or to expand Bell Gardens, Montebello and Schurr high schools.
The debate led to a difficult board decision two weeks ago to reject a plan to build a new high school in favor of adding classroom space to all three high schools. The decision, was seen as a victory by students, teachers and administrators at Bell Gardens High School.
New Building in Future
The board's decision will result in demolition of parts of the old high school and construction of a new, modern building that will house 45 classrooms and a media center.
During a series of public hearings, Bell Gardens High School representatives complained about conditions that have gone uncorrected for years at the 24-acre campus, one-third of which contains an abandoned elementary school.
In pleas that sometimes became emotional, the school's representatives said the district's southernmost high school campus has needs that must be addressed immediately or the students will suffer both physically and intellectually.
"The conditions (at Bell Gardens High) are depressing," Magness said during a tour of the campus. "How much can this (learning experience) mean to the kids if they are meeting in a termite-ridden classroom? Of course they feel third-rate."
Reports of broken doors, lack of open space, unhealthy drinking water and leaking classrooms seemed to catch school board members and administration officials off guard.
Ernest Gonzalez, student body president, told the board recently that the high school was in disrepair. "Our high school needs rebuilding and more classrooms," he said.
"Why didn't we hear about any of this before?" board member Willard G. Yamaguchi asked in exasperation after hearing testimony about the school's condition. "This is not fair that we have to be rushed to make a decision."
More than any high school in the county's third largest school district, Bell Gardens High has been directly affected by dramatic changes in the population and ethnic makeup of the community.
Those changes, coupled with the school system's inability to finance any major renovation in the district since the passage of Proposition 13, have led to a relatively rapid deterioration of the high school, district officials said.
Less than a decade ago, Bell Gardens, with 2,205 students, had the lowest enrollment of the three high schools in the district. It was well below the district average for Latino student enrollment. Today, there are 2,971 students, portable bungalows make up one-fourth of the classrooms, and the school population is almost exclusively Latino.
Bell Gardens Crowded
County Department of Regional Planning figures show that Bell Gardens is one of the most crowded and poorest cities in the state.
Demographic researchers attribute the population increase to a wave of Latino migration that is only now becoming apparent. Tens of thousands of Latinos have settled in a 22.5-square-mile area that lies between East and South-Central Los Angeles and the Rio Hondo River.
Despite predictions by local officials that the population in the area was stabilizing in the past few years, it has grown by leaps, taxing the city's fire and police protection, sewer and water services and other public institutions, including schools.
Bell Gardens High is no exception.