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WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Driven to Learn : Minority Students Endure Long Days to Be Bused to Westside Schools, but Sometimes They Get Blamed for Campus Problems

June 19, 1994|CAROL CHASTANG and DIANE SEO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

When he was at Carver Junior High in South-Central Los Angeles, ditching class was a part of his weekly routine, said Fernan do Silva. "At Carver, I got fails. The teachers let the kids walk out of the classrooms. They didn't pay attention."

But now that he is bused to Palisades High, Fernando, 17, finds it harder to skip class. "They're a little more strict here," said the 17-year-old sophomore, who now likes going to school and is maintaining a B average. He also works on "Video Tidelines," the campus cable television program.

"I wouldn't have had this opportunity at Jefferson," he said, referring to the high school in South-Central that he might have attended.

Fernando is one of 26,000 students who each day are bused to Los Angeles Unified School District schools in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside.

Some have no choice but to ride across town because their neighborhood schools are filled to capacity. Others are being sent to new campuses for disciplinary or academic reasons.

Some parents send their children to schools such as Palisades High and Paul Revere Middle School in Brentwood because of the schools' independent charters--their administrators can bypass the school district's bureaucracy to implement innovative instructional methods.

Although the school district does not keep precise figures, it is believed that a significant number of the bused students go to schools in such communities as Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Westwood and West Los Angeles.

The students, predominantly blacks, Latinos and Asians, who make the cross-town haul have helped diversify Westside schools and enabled many suburban campuses faced with declining local enrollments to stay open.

But the district's $39-million busing programs are a cause of concern for some Westside residents, who blame inner-city students for violence on campus and graffiti on the walls of neighborhood schools. It's an allegation hotly contested by administrators and the bused-in students themselves.

Busing to the suburbs began in the late 1960s when the school district launched a controversial voluntary busing program to integrate Los Angeles schools. About 9,700 students from minority areas are now bused to Valley and Westside schools as part of various voluntary integration programs.

An additional 16,000 students--including 7,600 elementary school children--are forced to travel to other campuses because their neighborhood schools in areas such as Pico-Union, South Gate and Huntington Park are overcrowded.

Thousands of magnet-school and special-education students also ride the bus, and regular school transfer permits are given to other students who can find their own transportation to schools outside their neighborhoods.

In recent years, the number of bused students has declined as the district's total enrollment has dropped and new schools have been built in areas that were overcrowded. Three years ago, for instance, more than 38,000 students were bused for integration and overcrowding reasons.

But cross-town busing is still a ubiquitous part of the 640,000-student school district, essentially blurring racial distinctions between suburban and inner-city schools.

"The idea of a neighborhood school is a thing of the past," said Don Savarese, an assistant principal at Palisades High School. Out of 1,680 students at the school, 1,176 are bused from South-Central and East Los Angeles. About 80 students are bused in from Topanga Canyon. Some of his students, Savarese added, have never attended a neighborhood school.

A graying population and high housing prices that limit the number of young families who can afford to live in Pacific Palisades contributed to low enrollment at Palisades High during the 1980s. Now, because of busing and the attraction of its charter program, Palisades is near capacity. This fall, a math and science magnet program will be implemented at Palisades, heightening the school's popularity.

The school's demographics have also changed. "Seventy percent of the students are minorities, and 30% are Anglo," Savarese said. "Ten years ago, it was the other way around."

Rising before dawn and riding the bus up to three hours a day is a grueling sacrifice many students are willing to make because, they say, suburban schools are safer and academically more challenging than those in their own neighborhoods.

Until a few months ago, when he got a car, Mario Elias would wake up at 5:30 a.m. to hurry to the bus stop for the hourlong trek to the Westside from South-Central Los Angeles.

Elias, a junior at Palisades High who had been bused since first grade, said he misses the 50-mile round-trip bus ride, which allowed him to catch up on sleep, get in some last-minute studying or play with friends.

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