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A Family's Journey of Hope

For the late Eric Hoggatt and his five siblings, school buses to the Valley showed the way to life's choices outside South-Central

November 10, 1996|JAMES RICCI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shortly after 6 in the morning, the daily pageant of hope at Florence and Vermont begins.

The early October sky is still lightless. A few refugees from the night fidget along the stained sidewalks, murmuring pleas for handouts. But school buses have begun taking over the streets. From every direction come the purposeful huff of diesels and the squeal of brakes.

In front of Max's Cleaners, small knots of tidy schoolkids have emerged from the darkness. They shift their weighty backpacks and chatter to one another. Ready for the day, they refute, without meaning to, all that the night's stragglers embody.

At 6:25, School Bus No. 4614 pulls up to Max's, and three high school girls board. It points its snub nose north on Normandie, west on Jefferson, north on Western, east on Pico, south on Normandie again, stopping five more times for passengers.

Inside, 4614 is dark and well-heated; the bus is a cocoon moving through a careworn and unpredictable South-Central Los Angeles landscape. By the time it turns west onto the Santa Monica Freeway, headed for the San Diego north, then the Ventura west, 22 girls and eight boys are aboard. In the milky light of the advancing day, they gab or stare or study. They fix and refix their hair.

The bus is bound for Birmingham High and Mulholland Middle schools in Van Nuys, 30-odd miles away. For those who boarded at Florence and Vermont, the trip will take 60 minutes.

For 12 of the 18 years that constituted his life, Eric Hoggatt was intimately familiar with such daily journeys. From first grade until the night before he died as a high school senior, he rode buses to the San Fernando Valley from South Los Angeles, sometimes from the corner of Florence and Vermont. He rode them, as he progressed through school, to Encino, Tarzana and Reseda.

As with the students on No. 4614, Eric and his family measured the long commutes less in miles or minutes than in expectations.

*

About 6,800 students migrate every day from South-Central to schools in the Valley. Their trips are powered by the energies and aspirations of their families, as much as by diesel fuel. The ultimate destination is a more promising existence than a childhood restricted to South-Central ordinarily portends.

There is a fare, however--a price that must be paid for the ride. It's paid in the currency of domestic routines that often involve, for students as young as 7, extremely early mornings and long hours away from home, particularly when children are involved in athletics and other extracurricular activities. It's paid also in a certain disconnection that can exist between parents and the distant schools their children attend.

The experience of many a South-Central family is reflected in that of Michael and Verna Hoggatt and their children. The Hoggatts embraced the inconveniences and disconnection as the sine qua non of a greater good. Over the years, they became a way of life.

The Hoggatts came to public attention after their son Eric, an 18-year-old football player at Reseda High School, died of an apparent brain hemorrhage suffered in a Sept. 12 game against Chatsworth High.

Eric was one of six Hoggatt children, all of whom have been educated, from elementary to high school, primarily in the Valley. The same is true of a niece and a nephew the Hoggatts are raising. Over the years, the children of the Hoggatt clan, now ages 8 to 23, have gone to schools in Encino, Tarzana, Canoga Park, Woodland Hills and Reseda.

Thousands of early mornings found young Hoggatts walking or being driven to dozens of South-Central intersections, including Florence and Vermont, to meet outbound school buses.

"For kindergarten, they went to school in the neighborhood, but after that I basically shipped them to the Valley," says Verna Hoggatt. "I wanted them to explore. I didn't want them to think there's only one way. It's a big world, and if there was opportunity, they were going to follow it."

Sending children so far away to learn, however, can also mean that parents will remain at a psychological remove from their children's schools. Taking care of garden-variety emergencies and attending parent-teacher meetings and sports events are much more difficult than if the schools were around the corner. Often parents have little opportunity to know and be known by school administrators and teachers.

This phenomenon clearly has played a role in the Hoggatts' reaction to their son's demise. They've filed a negligence claim against Reseda High School officials for not informing them after the game that Eric had complained of dizziness and tingling in his hands and feet during the contest, which the parents did not attend. Verna Hoggatt found her son dead in bed the following morning when she tried to wake him for school.

The image of Eric Hoggatt, blood possibly leaking into his brain cavity as he rode a late school bus home to a sleeping household at about 11 p.m., some 17 hours after leaving that morning, is a sobering one.

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