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Going the Distance for Choice

For some families, the best schools are those far from home. Students and parents try to make the most of their time on the road.

June 27, 2005|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

Early every morning that classes are in session, Laura Aguayo loads her three children into the family minivan and begins the commute to school. Palmdale to Topanga Canyon: 62 miles, four freeways, two twisting canyon roads.

"It's a sacrifice for me, but I don't care," Aguayo said recently before she began a summer hiatus in her trips to the private Calmont School. "I want the best for my children."

Aguayo is hardly alone, judging by the accounts of families who do not let long commutes deter them from enrolling their children in schools they deem best.

"This is one more variation on the growing movement for school choice," said Jennifer Jellison Holme, a researcher at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. "There might be a good school less than three hours away, but people are going to do what they think is best for their kids."

Students making long trips to private and some public schools is nothing new. The Los Angeles Unified School District's magnet program, for example, has for decades drawn students to distant campuses.

Irene Sumida, co-director of Fenton Avenue Charter School in Lake View Terrace, said she was stunned when the mother of two students commuted each day from Bakersfield -- about 75 miles away -- after the family moved midway through the school year.

About a dozen students live in Palmdale or Lancaster, and one Burbank family recently transferred their son from a private school, Sumida said. Dozens of other parents ride public buses to bring their youngsters to the northeast San Fernando Valley campus.

"When people commute, not for a job but for their children, that's really something," Sumida said.

Luis and Margarita Escontrias rearranged their careers -- and sometimes their evenings and weekends -- to drive daughter Pilar the 88 miles between their home in Riverside and Marymount High School, a Catholic girls school across Sunset Boulevard from UCLA.

"It was a place where I thought she would thrive, academically, artistically and spiritually," Margarita Escontrias concluded after her exhaustive search for the right school.

They considered moving closer to the school but decided instead to work closer. Escontrias took a position with the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency and joined her husband and daughter for much of their daily drive -- 2 1/2 hours each way. Luis Escontrias is a lawyer who owns a political and public affairs consulting firm that enabled him to work nearby.

"We never had any doubt as to whether it was worth it," he said. "We knew from the very first day she had found her niche."

Over four years, they witnessed their share of harrowing accidents and near-misses. They once saw a small plane make an emergency landing on the freeway. Another time, a tire blew out on their Honda Accord while they were driving in the carpool lane.

Pilar studied or slept during much of the ride -- which began about 5:45 each morning -- but still found she had "lots of good quality time with my parents." On days when school activities or social engagements extended Pilar's days, her parents stayed in town.

"I had a really normal high school experience, even though I lived so far away," said Pilar, who recently finished her freshman year at Princeton. "Now that I am in college, I have come to respect what my parents did for me a lot more. I realize what a loving commitment of time it was."

By contrast, commuting from Orange County's Balboa Island to downtown Los Angeles has been a relative snap for Greg Selmi, a student at Loyola High, a prestigious Catholic boys school. Most mornings, Dan Selmi drops off his son before heading to work as a teacher at the nearby Loyola Law School. Their journey was eased by carpool lanes and Kevin and Bean on KROQ-FM radio.

"I've never regretted it, not once," said Greg Selmi. Loyola was his grandfather's alma mater.

Dan Selmi said he quickly came to enjoy the drive time with his son.

"We have only one more year to do this, and I think I will miss it when he's gone" to college, Dan Selmi said.

Leslie Hinshaw, who attends Marlborough School in Hancock Park, said her family finds the 30-mile drive from their Rowland Heights home anything but enjoyable. Her father usually ferries her to the girls school and her younger brother to St. James' Episcopal Day School, in the Wilshire district, before reporting for work at Paramount Pictures.

"We have so much homework, it's tough to sacrifice all that time for the drive," said Leslie, who attended a private elementary school in the Larchmont district west of downtown. "I feel like I've lost six years of my life on the freeway."

Family members "constantly debate" whether to move closer, but they are reluctant to leave their many nearby relatives.

Still, Leslie is glad she goes to Marlborough.

Many private schools help families arrange carpools, and some provide bus service, paid for by families. But some students live too far even for those services.

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