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A LESSON IN MUSICAL CHAIRS : Plagued by an Ever-Shifting Enrollment, Inner City Schools Have Become Revolving Doors, Leaving Teachers Frustrated and Programs in Disarray

November 13, 1994|Diane Seo

AT DORSEY HIGH IN THE CRENSHAW DISTRICT, about 1,100 students--nearly 90% of the enrollment--will either leave or enter some time after the school year begins.

The situation is only a little better at the 1,700-student Bethune Middle School in South-Central Los Angeles, which lost 713 students and gained 513 last school year.

Like most other inner city schools in Los Angeles, Dorsey and Bethune have become revolving doors for students who enroll and leave--often without providing a trace of their whereabouts. Such instability--dubbed "transiency" by administrators--has left teachers frustrated, students constantly playing catch-up with course work and schools losing money, inasmuch as the level of state funding is determined by attendance.

"Transiency has always been one of our monumental problems in the inner city," said Edith Morris, Bethune's principal. "It breaks up the continuity of our whole program and it drastically affects test scores because youngsters don't have any continuity in their education."

Added Yvonne Noble, principal at Crenshaw High, where the rate of transiency is well above the district average: "It affects the entire program because when our population declines, our funding is cut and we lose teachers. When we lose teachers, we can lose programs."

Such flux has several causes. Sometimes, students switch schools because of academic or gang-related problems. They also leave when their families move to new neighborhoods or go back to their home countries. Still others become transient when they simply choose to be truant.

Transiency plagues every school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, but inner city schools tend to have the highest rates because they are havens for recent immigrants, apartment dwellers and others who for either economic or social reasons tend to move frequently.

Transiency is expressed as a percentage of the school's average monthly enrollment. Because the figure includes students who may enroll, leave and then return to the same school twice in the same year, some students may be counted twice. High schools generally report the highest rates and elementary schools the lowest.

The district's 46% overall transiency rate has gradually increased over the years, though there was a slight drop between the 1991-92 school year and 1992-93. The rates at some schools, however, continue to climb. At Dorsey, the transiency rate jumped from 56% in 1987-88 to 87% five years later. Bethune's rate also rose from 70% to 77% during the same period, according to the district's most recent figures.

Said Mike Roe, Bethune's attendance counselor: "This area is in a tremendous state of change because people are constantly moving to find work or new places to live."

He added, "We've seen a lot of folks, especially black families, move to other areas like Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Bernardino and Riverside. Around 1978, this school was almost totally black. Now, it's mostly Latino."

During the last week of October, Bethune lost 20 students. Five of those students went to Mexico; eight moved to other Los Angeles Unified schools; three transferred to other California districts; one student moved to Virginia, and three others went unaccounted for. During the same week, 13 new students enrolled at the school.

Roe said that at the start of the school year, 1,200 of the students who were supposed to attend Bethune didn't show up.

Roe tracked down most of the missing students, but he still has no idea what happened to 577 of them.

"One of the biggest problems is the tremendous number of kids who go back to another country," Roe said. "They leave and visit their home countries, but they don't come back for several weeks and don't tell anyone at school where they are."

Many immigrants also move to areas such as South-Central or Watts when they first arrive, then to areas where the population is more stable and where they can find jobs, Roe said.

Olga Martinez, a junior at Dorsey who moved to Los Angeles from Mexico in 1988, provides an example of today's itinerant student.

She attended Butler Elementary, Muir and Bethune middle schools, then switched back to Muir before moving on to Dorsey. During this time, Martinez said, her family moved five times.

"Sometimes, we moved to different places because we had no money," she said. "I felt funny moving around because when I went to Bethune, I didn't know anybody and I didn't have any friends."

Martinez also recently spent three weeks of the school year in Mexico because she had to take care of personal matters.

"You miss a lot of things when you go," she said. "It makes it tougher."


Ceola Holmes, 14, attended seven elementary schools and three junior highs before enrolling as a freshman at Dorsey High this fall.

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