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Tracking Down Class Members Posed an Unusual Challenge

June 07, 2000

In measuring the progress of the 1989 Belmont seniors, The Times launched an enterprise that drew on the specialties and expertise of a wide variety of departments from across the newspaper.

Research tools were used by specialists in library sciences, computer assisted reporting and polling as well as reporters who helped build computer databases and track down former students.

"When doing this kind of project, it's really important to take advantage of the resources available and make the technology work efficiently for you," said Janet Lundblad, the Times library's deputy manager for projects and news research.

One challenge was the Los Angeles Unified School District, which, like many districts, has no system for tracking its graduates over an extended period.

Times reporters obtained school rosters and other records, including yearbooks, class reunion lists and responses that the seniors gave in surveys about their plans for the future.

Ultimately, 822 students who made up the class were identified.

Reporters working with specialists in The Times' computer analysis unit began building a computer database with names, birth dates, addresses and phone numbers from students' senior year.

The next step was more problematic: finding current addresses, phone numbers or other means of making contact.

The newspaper contracted with the Lexis-Nexis research service to conduct a nationwide search of public records and telephone directories. The database grew to more than 1,300 potential matches. Many of the matches were people with the same names as class members.

Times reporters used local telephone directories to obtain more possible phone numbers. Those contacted were asked to help locate others in the class.

The newspaper also contacted organizers of the class' 10-year reunion to obtain additional names, locations, phone numbers or e-mail addresses.

The newspaper developed a 32-question survey and the Times Poll was enlisted in an unusual role of helping to track down specific individuals.

Among other things, the pollsters asked class members about educational levels, income ranges, job status, family background and attitudes about their lives.

A team of Times researchers reviewed business records, property records, professional licenses, voter registration records and other data to find additional students.

To help paint a picture of the Belmont area in 1989, The Times conducted a computer analysis of census data and Los Angeles Police Department records. This provided information such as population density, poverty rates and homicide figures.

A separate database was built to review criminal justice records, including searches that were done by the California Department of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The newspaper also reviewed death certificates of several class members.

To help analyze and show where the class members live, The Times used current ZIP Codes and a computer mapping program.

As the research was being completed, The Times conducted dozens of detailed follow-up interviews with class members. Six were selected to be profiled.


How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Poll interviewed 334 former Belmont High School students, out of 822 who were in the Class of 1989, by telephone Oct. 13 through Dec. 17, 1999. The poll had a response rate of 41%. Of those who were not reached, 12 students refused to answer the survey, five were deceased and 471 either could not be located, were unavailable or did not return phone calls. Of those students contacted, 227 were of Latino descent (68%), 88 were of Asian descent (26%), eight were white (2%), two were African American (less than 1%) and nine (3%) were categorized as "other." The makeup of the class is reflected in the students surveyed. The survey was conducted in English and Spanish.

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