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A Dispatch From the Front Lines

FRIDAY REPORT / An in-depth look at people and policies
shaping Southern California

Students have no trouble identifying the L.A. school district's most pressing problems--from old books to dirty bathrooms--but they say administrators are slow to catch on and take action.

October 15, 1999|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN and KARIMA A. HAYNES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In blunt and eager voices, students quickly reveal their assessments of the Los Angeles Unified School District's most immediate, crucial needs and problems:

* "Metal detectors don't work, because kids can hide weapons in their shoes and no one will say anything."

* "The covers are falling off of my textbooks. Some of them look like they were here since my parents went to school. I have a health book that's older than I am."

* "I'd rather wait until I go home to use the bathroom."

* "I can never find my teacher to ask her for help, because she doesn't have her own classroom. We have a lot of traveling teachers, we're so crowded."

Those voices come from about two dozen students of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds in high schools throughout Los Angeles. In light of high-profile district debacles such as the $200-million, environmentally troubled Belmont Learning Complex, a half-completed high school near downtown, The Times informally interviewed more than two dozen students about their most pressing educational concerns.

Although just a small, unscientific sample in a behemoth system with nearly 708,000 students, the teenagers provided responses that highlight the need for district administrators to solicit students' opinions more. Too often, school officials concede, the focus has been on attending seemingly endless meetings, hiring consultants and conducting lengthy and sometimes costly analyses, complete with colorful flip-charts.

"It's easier than talking with students," said mayoral candidate Steve Soboroff, chairman of a committee that oversees the spending of funds from Proposition BB, the $2.4-billion school repair and construction bond issue that voters approved in April 1997. "But students are the ones who know the most" about school conditions, followed by custodians, teachers, principals and, finally, district administrators, he said.

Like students across the district, Patricia Lopez, 17, a senior at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, said she is concerned about crowded classrooms, worn and torn books and a shortage of credentialed teachers. But overall, Lopez said her teachers have done a good job of preparing her for college. With an estimated 4,520 students in one of the district's most crowded schools, however, she said there is only so much teachers can do.

To ease crowding, Roosevelt students attend school on different year-round calendars and, depending on the track, students might have a difficult time getting teacher references for college applications or properly preparing for Advanced Placement exams, she said. Many teachers are also hard to track down for help because they operate without a home base, traveling between classrooms.

"It's, like, we're crammed together," said Lopez, a student body vice president. "It can make learning hard."

A Catalog of Needs

Although not as packed as Roosevelt, the Westside's University High School, with an enrollment of 2,411, still has funding needs, such as new textbooks, students said. Ronnie Thomas, 17, a senior from South-Central, said he is one year younger than his tattered health book, published in 1981.

Thomas and five other student leaders led a Times reporter on a tour of the school Monday, into rooms with concrete floors and pipes hanging from the ceiling.

In the library, six aging computer terminals sat silent and covered. Freshman Puya Abassi, 14, of Westwood complained that students can no longer search the school library's computerized book catalog and must instead rely on the old-fashioned card catalog.

Girls decried their ground-floor bathroom, which had no hot water, a rotting ceiling and toilet stalls without doors. "It's unbelievable," said Valerie Horn, student body vice president. "I'd rather wait until I go home to use the bathroom."

Outside, rickety wooden bleachers stood beside the football field, while the baseball field had a threadbare look, with little grass and hard-packed dirt.

Perhaps saddest was an area of the campus the students called Indian Springs, built on the site of a former Native American burial ground, a small park-like setting containing a natural spring.

The landscape was neglected. A chain-link fence surrounded brown grass. Plants were dying. A greenhouse had no glass, and its frame was covered with graffiti.

Of the once-beautiful area, 17-year-old Charlie Sheen (no relation to the actor) said: "It makes me feel proud that the school was once like this. It makes me want to make it better. But I wish the school board would help more."

University High Principal Cynthia Ann Petty said the school has already received grants, including Proposition BB funding and federal earthquake aid, to fix many of the major problems cited by the students. This includes money to paint the bleachers, replace the library's computers, repair a run-down greenhouse and install lawn sprinklers.

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