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Schools In Crisis : Grim Days At Grant High : Fights, Absenteeism And Resentment Are Increasing, And Learning Is Suffering, As A Once-proud School Deals With Relentless Budget Cuts

January 05, 1992|SANDY BANKS | Sandy Banks is a Times staff writer specializing in education

The school board had already reduced administrative spending, borrowed from its construction accounts, cut custodial services and dipped into its insurance reserves to narrow the budget gap, before it voted this summer on cuts. There were bitter arguments and tears among board members as they slogged through what board President Warren Furutani termed "the ugly zone" of painful cuts. Ultimately, almost 2,000 teachers were laid off, hundreds of courses were eliminated and the remaining classes were crammed with additional students, and spending on such basic supplies as textbooks, pencils and paper was curtailed. Some critics blame the district for its own problems, charging that employee salaries (teachers make, on average, $43,000 a year) have increased disproportionately to state funding. And now, for schools that have just barely managed to accommodate the cuts, there's the dire prospect of more budget cuts to come this spring.

Public schools around the country have been caught in the same sort of budget vise. Here, in the nation's second-largest school system, the problems are compounded by the ceaseless needs of its students. Almost one-third of the district's 640,000 students come to school speaking little or no English. More than 60% come from families so poor that they qualify for free school lunches. One in three drops out before graduating from high school.

"We're basing our funding of public schools on a concept that hardly exists anymore--the middle-class home where the kids are well taken care of, daddy works and mommy stays home, they have a family doctor and summer camp and music lessons and help with their homework," says Roberta Weintraub, who represents the East San Fernando Valley on the school board. "We have to wake up and realize these are kids of poverty, and they need so much more than we're able to give."

IN MANY WAYS, ULYSSES S. GRANT HIGH SCHOOL IS A MICROCOSM of the district--its successes, its failures, and the changes that have pushed the once-proud system into a relentless slide toward mediocrity.

The sprawling campus sits alongside a flood-control channel near the point where Van Nuys, North Hollywood and Sherman Oaks converge. Its 39 acres are spread over a city block, across the street from Valley College--the next stop for hundreds of Grant's graduates. With its expansive athletic fields and verdant grounds, Grant's web of problems is not noticeable at first glance. The grassy quad is ringed by stately evergreens, and flowers grace the fronts of the half-dozen classroom buildings, which have served as backdrops for countless movies. Rows of trailers take up a corner of the parking lot, serving as bungalow classrooms to handle the overflow of a growing population. There are an outdoor patio that serves as a lunchroom, and a brick bandstand where students play music and school clubs hawk their wares. From Grant's opening day in 1959, teachers clamored to work at the school, which drew its students from the homes of doctors, lawyers and schoolteachers in the surrounding upper- and middle-class neighborhoods. "This was the premier school of the '60s and '70s," declares Dan Gruenberg, the dean of students, who began teaching at the school 28 years ago. "It used to be a selling point for realtors."

But much has changed since then. There was a shooting last year in front of nearby Millikan Junior High in Sherman Oaks, and fights erupt occasionally on the Grant campus--sometimes sparked by gang rivalries, more often by squabbles arising from an inevitable clash of many cultures. Evidence of the tension that underlies even the most innocent interactions can be seen in the lunchtime cliques. White students lounge on the grassy median; blacks gather along the one wall. Asians sit cross-legged, books open, outside the library. A circle of Armenians rings a tree. The tables on the patio are filled with Latinos. This is education Los Angeles-style in 1991.

"It's a fact of life all over the district these days," says Gruenberg, who must discipline the combatants. "There's a lot of hostility among the kids, and not a lot of understanding."

With 3,200 pupils, Grant is among the district's largest schools and one of the most diverse. Half of its students are from Mexico or Central America. About one-third are white, 10% Asian-American and 10% black. A majority are recent immigrants--from 50 different countries around the world--and only one-third come from homes where English is the primary language. Thirteen-hundred students arrive by bus each day from the polyglot neighborhoods around Belmont High, near downtown, because it has no room for them. "Now, you've got this mostly white, middle-aged faculty and these young immigrant or minority kids, and we're not able to bridge that gap," Gruenberg says.

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