At 12:40 p.m., the race begins.
Hundreds of students bolt toward the school cafeteria, forming lines that snake around the rows of benches crammed in the busy lunch room. The crush of teen-agers waiting anxiously for their meal come from all over the world: Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, South Korea, Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Various languages ring through the room as students chat with friends and pick up trays of fried chicken.
This is Belmont High School--the Los Angeles Unified School District's most overcrowded school and also one of its most diverse.
"We're like the Ellis Island of Los Angeles," said Tony Feliz, the school's music director.
About a mile west of Downtown near Beverly Boulevard and Loma Drive, Belmont has about 4,200 students--making it the largest high school in California, as well as one of the largest secondary schools in the country. Compounding its problems, Belmont's 14.7-acre campus is the smallest for a high school in the Los Angeles district.
Overcrowding is just one of the obstacles students and staff confront daily. Because the surrounding Westlake neighborhood consistently attracts immigrants from around the world, the school has a steady and heavy flow of students hoping to enroll or planning to leave before completing the semester. Many do not live with either parent.
Belmont students represent 50 countries and communicate in more than 30 languages, and most speak English as a second language. Nearly three-fourths of the school's population meet poverty standards qualifying them for free or reduced-priced lunches. And the campus is also in one of the city's most violent areas.
Alone, any one of those factors could prove overwhelming. Together, they mean unique challenges that Belmont's students, staff and faculty must find innovative ways to overcome.
"Not only are we the largest school in California, but we're probably the largest immigrant entry port for students in California," said Augustine Herrera, who is in his first year as principal of Belmont. "Instead of getting an education, there's a lot of pressure for students to earn a living and help their families survive. We have to make sure school is relevant to students and that they consider it a priority."
Herrera said his staff is now establishing long-range goals for the school, which will address such problems as transiency and language differences. The school is also looking for new ways to relieve overcrowding, although it is already on a multitrack, year-round calendar. Under the multitrack plan, a third of the student body is always on vacation, leaving 2,800 students on campus at any given time.
Over the next three years, Herrera said, the school will change its curricula to cater to its large immigrant population. Although algebra, biology, health, world history and career planning classes already are taught in Spanish, the school may add more classes in that language to help students with limited English skills.
Belmont's new curricula will not be patterned after educational programs in suburban schools because its needs and strengths are different, Herrera said. Instead, the school may create more programs such as the International Studies Academy, which began in 1989 and is designed for honor students interested in learning about different cultures.
"I think we also need to be honest with students who come from other countries and are expected to complete all the course work in four years," Herrera said. "They need to be told when they come in as freshmen that it's probably going to take them more like five years to graduate."
Belmont opened in 1923 with about 500 students. The main building was rebuilt in 1967, and construction on another major addition began in 1990 and is expected to be completed in June. The school's mostly white student population grew steadily during the 1930s and '40s, but then its attendance started to dwindle in the 1950s. The school board considered closing the school, but ultimately decided not to.
About two decades after trustees made that crucial decision, large numbers of mostly Latino immigrants flocked to Pico-Union and Westlake to take advantage of affordable apartments, and the school began to grow. Today, about 85% of Belmont's students are Latino and 13% are Asian.
Because of the massive influx of immigrants, the school board is considering constructing another high school in the area. Although some residents and community groups are opposed to building a new school so close to an existing one, school officials say they must do something to relieve the overcrowding at Belmont.