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COLUMN ONE

Sleuths on the Trail of Student Interlopers

As classes brim, school gumshoes--sometimes in disguise--ferret out pupils who live beyond district lines. In Downey, 1,000 such children have been ejected this year.

June 12, 1998|TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bea Colon lurks on street corners near the Downey public schools, following little children on their way home. Sometimes, to avoid being recognized, she pulls a blond wig over her long black curls or costumes herself like a homeless person.

It's amazing what a school official will do these days to find out where students live.

Brimming with a burgeoning school-age population and fighting to keep classes small, California schools are shutting their doors to students who live outside their boundaries. And as parents, who are making their fall school decisions now, invent clever ways to sneak their children through the back door, schools are taking extraordinary steps to ferret out violators.

The La Canada Flintridge schools hire a private detective to videotape children going in and out of houses, to see if registered students really live there. Schools in Irvine and Beverly Hills require a stack of papers--utility bills, rental papers, bank statements, you name it--as proof that a new student lives within the district.

Those are big-name districts with mighty academic reputations. Yet it is in the humble Downey Unified School District where the enrollment battle has gotten downright ugly.

In a district of about 20,000 students, the schools have found--and thrown out--more than 1,000 out-of-district violators this year, nearly triple the 350 cases of three years ago.

Dismayed over the influx of students it is unequipped to seat, much less educate, the district doubled its number of investigators this year. Four investigators are now reviewing 6,000 suspect cases. They mostly turn a deaf ear to the pleas of students they catch, recently showing the door to an eighth-grader six weeks before his scheduled junior high school graduation.

Downey's determination to push interlopers out is matched by the desperation of parents committed to carving out a better educational life for their kids.

"I expected school officials to catch us one day," said Maria Lopez, who sent two daughters to Downey schools by registering them under their aunt's address. "Every day I worried about it."

But the worry--and the lying and rule-breaking--were worth it, she said. Lopez considered her local school in the Los Angeles Unified School District to be unsafe, graffiti-marred and dilapidated.

Enter Colon, Downey's lead investigator and a woman with a mission. In one swoop on a recent Thursday morning, she kicked out Lopez's children and half a dozen others.

"The district is not willing to pick up their tab," Colon said.

Lopez doesn't blame Colon, but generally the school investigator's popularity with out-of-district parents ranks about even with that of a revenuer hunting down a whiskey still. Colon has had water sprinklers turned on her, doors slammed in her face and even a death threat made as she searched for children who do not belong in her schools.

'It's a Monster of a Problem'

School choice was supposed to be the law of the land, according to California legislation passed in 1994. It was designed to give parents their selection of the best public schools regardless of district lines--as long as they were willing to do the commuting and there were classroom spots available after all resident pupils had been accommodated. Another goal was to prompt schools to compete for students, and the funding they bring, by improving their educational offerings.

But a surge in the number of school-age children and another school-improvement idea--reducing class size to 20 students in primary grades--have sounded a sort of statewide death knell for choice. The last thing most schools are interested in getting is extra students and their avid parents knocking at the door.

"It's a mess; it's a monster of a problem," said Frank Boehler, director of child welfare and attendance at the Orange Unified School District. "We have schools that cannot afford to take one more kid. One more kid in some classes [that are limited to 20], and we have to open a new class."

Even moving to another school within the same district has become difficult. Los Angeles Unified, with an all-time enrollment high of 680,000 students this year, opened only 7,400 seats for such transfers in the fall, down from 22,000 in 1994.

For the past six years, Claudia Velilla has arranged for her mother, a resident of Villa Park in Orange County, to take care of her three sons in the early morning and after school, so the children conveniently attended classes just across the street. Velilla lives in the district, Orange Unified, but within the boundaries of another elementary school. She says school officials approved of the arrangement until February, when she was told her two younger sons had to leave. (Her older son was in a middle school and was not forced out.)

"It was done unjustly," Velilla said. "My mother feels the kids should be able to attend Villa Park because she takes care of them and pays taxes in the area. She has lived there for more than 13 years."

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