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A Student's Long Trek for an Education : Education: Pupil's plight reflects hardships faced by thousands in L.A. district.


As most of his classmates are still stretching and yawning in their beds, Jose Delgado shivers in the dark, waiting to begin his 75-minute journey to school.

The 8-year-old's daily bus trip from Berendo Middle School west of downtown is a circuit through neighborhoods like his own: urban swaths of large families and cramped living that have far outpaced local schools' capacities.

Along the way, Route 3571 will scoop up an additional 38 children for drop-off before first bell at three elementary schools on the Westside with room to spare.

"We go to another school and another school and another school," is the way Jose explained it as he boarded the bus at 6:48 one morning last week.

Although such a redistribution looks reasonable on paper, in human terms it is distinctly unreasonable: asking children as young as 6 to waste more than two hours of their day on a bus in order to spend a little more than twice that in a classroom.

"Just put on your hat as a parent," said Bruce Takeguma, a busing specialist for Los Angeles Unified. "I have three little ones, and the thought of that . . ." he trails off, shaking his head.

The wisdom of the practice has come into question again after two young bus riders were killed in a freak accident. But without money to build schools in the pockets of population explosion, there is not much more the district can do to get children off the buses.


In the last five years it has reduced such overflow busing by nearly two-thirds--from 27,000 to 10,000--by moving portable classrooms onto campuses, transferring sixth-graders to middle schools, cramming more children into classrooms, scheduling classes year-round, and wooing more students into magnet programs.

Despite such efforts to take care of their own, the dozen or so elementary schools near the start of Route 3571 must bus enough children to fill at least three giant schools.

City demographers show that the wide geographic wedge from Koreatown to the edge of the Crenshaw area and across to the Westlake district near downtown houses more than 40 people per acre, nearly four times the citywide average. The people who live there are mostly poor. They are mostly new immigrants--primarily Korean and Central American--but also native-born Mexican Americans and African Americans.

At the heart of the area is 1,200-student Cahuenga Elementary School, near Western Avenue and 3rd Street, the only one in the district that turns away more students than it teaches.

"It's very difficult for families to understand," Cahuenga Principal Lloyd Houske said. "They see a neighborhood school and they think they're going to go there. . . . Some families just can't accept it--they keep coming back time after time to see if there's space."

The rules for getting into school seem simple: at the start of the school year, campuses accept new enrollees until they fill up. That means lots of seats for kindergartners who begin on time, fewer for children entering later in the year or in higher grades.

The rub is that new immigrants are the least likely to know those rules and the most likely to arrive in this country out of sync with academic calendars.

So for their children, taking the bus has become a way of life.


Every day, Route 3571 pulls away from blocks clogged with the apartment buildings and divided houses where these children live and heads for the modest homes with neat lawns over the hill. But few of the children notice that transition. Most are too short to see out the windows.

On Route 3571 this morning, it is instantly evident that for younger children, riding inside this marigold metal hulk day after day bridges many differences. As they take their seats, the only clear segregation is by gender: boys sit with boys, girls with girls.

Asked if he will share his seat with a rider expected at the next school, Jose looks incredulous.

"She's a girl," he says.

Jose is a bus veteran. For three years he has been making the circuitous 19-mile trek to Short Avenue Elementary School just inland from Marina del Rey. He is the first pickup on Route 3571 and its last drop-off, riding 15 minutes longer each way than his peers, who disembark at Braddock Drive and Stoner Avenue schools.

Jose goes to Short because his mother wanted him to attend school with his older brother, Irwin. His brother went there because by the time the Delgado family arrived from Guatemala for Irwin to start first grade, they found themselves locked out of local schools.

Jose's relative seniority on the bus has earned him an assigned seat--directly behind the bus driver--and the respect of his fellow travelers, who consider the backpack next to him an unspoken reservation for a special friend.

Through experience, Jose has learned to cope with motion sickness on the lurching and rocking bus--which he calls "when the bus gets dizzy"--by dozing.

And he watches the bus clock.

"It's 7:23 already," he cautions as the driver considers whether to pull away from a stop where no passengers are waiting.

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