HUNTINGTON PARK — Principal Lucille Derrig clings to her class schedule like a life preserver as she oversees the education of more than 2,800 pupils at the nation's largest elementary school.
Miles Avenue School has about a dozen classes at each grade level. It takes five lunch periods to serve the school's pupils and three sets of recesses to keep its playground from being overrun.
Despite the numbers, there is a surprising order and calm at the school. Classrooms average 27 to 29 pupils, in line with the state average, according to a state Department of Education official.
Common areas, such as the playground and cafeteria, are heavily used but not packed. Throughout the day, hundreds of pupils flow like columns of ants from classroom to playground and back again, always making room for the next group.
"We're highly organized to create a sense of smallness," Derrig said during a recent interview. "The one area that is difficult is scheduling, because we have to repeat so many things."
Miles is an example of how the giant Los Angeles Unified School District has approached educating children in crowded areas where vacant land is scarce. In fact, seven of the nation's 10 largest elementary schools are located in the Los Angeles district, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In 1979, Miles became one of the district's first elementary schools to be placed on a year-round schedule, which increases the school's capacity by keeping a quarter to a third of its children on vacation at any given time. Nearly 2,000 pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade attend Miles at a time.
But the district has since abandoned the practice of building giant schools. The capacity of new elementary schools is now limited to 1,000 pupils, and officials say they are planning several new schools in the Huntington Park area to reduce enrollment and help relieve some of the crowding at Miles. Construction starts this month on one of the schools.
"There's a feeling that smallness may be better because of the connections staff can make with students," said Assistant Supt. Maria Casillas, who oversees the district's Region B, which includes Huntington Park schools.
The new policy went into effect in the mid-1980s, shortly after the Board of Education had approved another building to expand Miles' capacity to its current level. The decision to enlarge the school "was a good idea at the time because we didn't have much money and there wasn't any land," said Rodger Friermuth, the district's facilities project manager.
But critics began attacking the district's large-school approach.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and other groups filed a lawsuit against the district in 1986. The lawsuit alleges, among other things, that low-income minority students are shortchanged by being educated in facilities that are larger and more crowded than those in predominantly Anglo communities.
Critics of large schools say administrators and teachers are unable to give individual students as much attention as in smaller schools. The students at a smaller school also may have access to more resources. The school library, for example, is not as likely to be overburdened.
Attorney Liz Guillen, who represents the Mexican American legal organization in the suit against the Los Angeles district, said Miles is "the type of school we want to stop having. It's difficult to know everybody in (a giant) school, which increases a feeling of anonymity and aloneness. A kid needs to feel like he knows his environment and the kids around him. That contributes to self-esteem, which is necessary for a learning environment."
The district has denied any intentional inequities. The case is expected to go to trial this summer.
Derrig, the Miles principal, says that size also has some advantages. Miles, for example, has a full-time nurse and a psychologist, while other district schools must share such personnel. There is a district-run day-care center adjacent to the school.
Miles School is next door to City Hall in this poor city of about 56,000 residents, 92% of whom are Latinos, according to the 1990 Census.
Its student body is about 98% Latino, including recently arrived immigrants from Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and other Latin American countries. Many come from poor families: the annual per capita income of Huntington Park is $7,235 compared to the county average of $15,331, according to the National Planning Data Corp.
Vacant space is at a premium at the school. Nine permanent buildings, some of them two stories, surround an asphalt playground. Bungalows rest on part of the playground, and there are only a few trees. But school hallways and classrooms sport fresh coats of paint, and generally are well kept.