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CALIFORNIA'S SCHOOLS: WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO? : Tale of 2 Schools Reveals Worst of Times : Education: Although only 40 miles separate elementaries in struggling Koreatown and affluent Agoura Hills, they are worlds apart. Still, they are bound by one problem--lack of funding.

August 02, 1992|WILLIAM TROMBLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It would be hard to find two schools as different as Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles and Yerba Buena Elementary School in Agoura Hills.

At Hobart, in the heart of riot-scarred Koreatown, 95% of the 2,300 students are Asian or Latino, two-thirds speak limited English or none at all, and 90% come from families on welfare. The school buildings look battered and tired, and there have been numerous shootings nearby, including a drive-by killing three years ago.

The attractive Yerba Buena campus is 40 miles north, in a prosperous San Fernando Valley suburb of homes worth $300,000 or more. Eighty-six percent of the school's 636 students are Anglo. Only 19 youngsters speak limited English. Only six come from welfare families.

Two different schools, two different worlds. Yet both suffer from inadequate financial support.

Hobart runs chronically short of supplies such as paper and pencils, and outdated textbooks are used because there is not enough money to buy new ones. Classes at Yerba Buena are growing larger, and resources such as nurses and reading specialists must be shared with other schools.

Recent visits by a Times reporter to a dozen California schools, in affluent and poor neighborhoods, suggest that the problems at Hobart and Yerba Buena are all too common and illustrate the tough choices years of stingy budgets have forced schools to make.

Hobart is smack in the middle of a major entry point for immigrants arriving in Los Angeles from Asia, Mexico and Central America. With 2,300 students, it is the second largest among the 650 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Its enrollment surpasses that of many entire school districts in the state.

The school's annual budget approaches $10 million, which not many years ago would have been unthinkably large for a single elementary campus. Yet, school officials say, Hobart is often short of materials, with such essential items as paper and pencils rationed. Teachers have been limping along with history textbooks so old they do not even mention the Korean War--this in a school where many of the children are of Korean descent.

This year, Hobart received $51,700 in state money to buy instructional materials. Most of the money went for new mathematics texts approved by the State Board of Education several years ago. It also bought new history books--but only enough for grades three through six.

"We never have enough to outfit the school," said Assistant Principal Susie Oh, "so we have to pick and choose and share."

To fit more students onto the campus, Hobart runs on a year-round calendar, open every weekday except Christmas. About 1,600 youngsters are in class at any one time. Every inch of the campus is utilized, and the noise level is high.

Another 600 to 800 youngsters are "at our gates every morning," said Principal Jim Mesrah, who manages this educational factory with astonishing calm. The pupils gather at 6:15 a.m. to take buses to less crowded campuses in the San Fernando Valley.

Soon, these students will be able to attend a new elementary school for 1,000 students under construction two blocks away. But even when that school opens, Mesrah notes, Hobart will still be bursting at the seams. And classes will still be too large.

Because the school benefits from federal and state programs for disadvantaged students, its classes are smaller than in some Westside Los Angeles schools. But education experts generally believe a class of 29 is too high for a school like Hobart, where only one-third of the students are proficient in English and more than a fourth arrived in the United States less than three years ago, many having never attended school. Hobart ranks in the top third statewide of schools with similar socioeconomic characteristics--and in the bottom third in test scores.

"Our problems are multilayered," Mesrah said. "Language is a tremendous barrier. Socioeconomic conditions are another--I know a mama who moves from motel to motel to motel, trying to keep a roof over her kids' heads. Add to that the financial problems of the schools and you've got a lot of handicaps for one of these youngsters to overcome."

It is not just schools in poverty-level neighborhoods that are suffering. The impact is being felt in suburban communities as well.

Yerba Buena looks on the surface like the kind of school parents are seeking when they buy expensive homes in the suburbs. Only 24 years old, the buildings have no serious maintenance problems. On a recent visit, the grass was trimmed and the two main buildings were attractively bordered with flowers and plants, placed there by parent volunteers.

Most students score well above average on achievement tests and come from financially stable families that offer many enrichment opportunities.

"Our parents are very education-minded and care a lot, which really helps," said Principal Dorothy L. Penney, now in her fourth year at the school. Nonetheless, she said, "we're starting to feel the cuts."

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