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Melting Pot of Belmont High Brims With Hopes and Plans

OUR SCHOOLS: A Closeup View; One of an occasional series


Immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants come together at Belmont High School to learn American history and culture while sharing stories of how they arrived here.

The students speak Spanish and Vietnamese in the same rooms, as they learn chemistry and geometry in English. For some, it is the only place where they will speak English during the entire day.

"It's diverse here. You can meet all kinds of people," said senior Harold Valderama, 17, who was born in Hawaii and is of Filipino descent. "You don't feel like a minority because everyone else is a minority."

Belmont, located a mile west of the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, draws students from 50 countries and is often called the "United Nations" high school.

"Whenever there's turmoil in the world, we get the students," said Belmont Principal Marta Bin, adding that two students arrived this school year from the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain. "I don't know how they survive, but because they survive they have achieved a goal already. So they want to make it here."

Operating on a year-round basis, Belmont is the scholastic home for 4,300 students, making it one of the largest high schools in the nation. Nearly 75% of Belmont students are Latino and 22% are Asian.

Many in the Belmont student body speak with enthusiasm of their school, which opened in 1923. They do so in more than 30 languages.

"When you look at it from the outside, it doesn't look like much," said senior Jerry Majewsky, 18, who is of Nicaraguan and German descent. "But when you realize it's not just getting the work done and turning it in, it's more of a home away from home. You feel safe."

To get to class, students enter the massive three-story main building, pass by the security desk and stroll down crowded halls with muraled walls that depict local neighborhoods or encourage them to stay in school.

At lunchtime, many line up in the cafeteria or buy snacks from the student store. From there they make their way to the "flats," an asphalt-covered area where students hang out.

For the moment, what matters most for these students is with whom they will "hang out." This is a setting for the socialization of immigrants into a new world, the U.S. teen-age world. They can hang out with the "ESL" (English as a second language) crowd at the downstairs lunch tables, the "popular students" by the trees or "the jocks," to name a few of the groups.

Bin regularly urges students to do well in school. Students hear the morning announcements in English and Spanish. On Mondays they are also broadcast in Mandarin Chinese. "Teachers, teach from bell to bell. Students, keep on studying hard to achieve success in your life," said the Cuban-born Bin one recent morning.

Bin is "very concerned about us. When one of us succeeds, she succeeds," said Hady Rodriguez, 17, who came to Los Angeles from El Salvador in 1983 and is an A student.

The optimistic remarks of Bin, who has been principal since 1987, are so much a part of Belmont High that they have spawned a series of jokes and imitations.

"Come on Sentinels get together. Juntos podemos vencer. Together we can overcome. Juntos, juntos, juntos," was one student's imitation of Bin.

Bin uses encouragement as one way to attack a serious dropout problem. Of the members of the Belmont Class of 1989, about 28% of the students who started 10th grade dropped out before finishing the 12th grade. But this rate is lower than the school district's average for the same period of 35%.

Students often drop out because of economic reasons, said Sal Castro, Belmont counselor and teacher. Among other reasons for dropping out are frustration and lack of accomplishment, said Castro, who was a leader of demonstrations in 1968 to demand educational changes at predominantly Mexican-American high schools.

Castro warned against relying solely on official dropout rates because, he said, some schools might alter their figures.

"There is no one Latino school that can say that 'our dropout rate is lower,' because if they tell you that they're lying," Castro said. "If you get the figures for the incoming ninth grade class and see how many of them graduate, only half are left by the time that class graduates."

Bin and Belmont counselors and teachers have implemented innovative programs to retain students and prepare them for college. These include the International Studies Academy, which provides intense academic training for college-bound students; a mix of advanced placement and honors courses, and college enrichment programs such as Upward Bound and Step-to-College.

Extracurricular activities, from the city champion cross-country teams to the yearbook staff, keep many students involved and in school. They also help to keep students away from outside influences, such as the 62 gangs in the apartment and duplex-dominated residential area, according to school police.

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