Krystina Hunley, a student at El Camino College, volunteers as a ballet… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)
For more than five years, Hilda Hernandez has guided students around a variety of potential hazards — speeding drivers, shady looking characters hanging out on street corners — while working as a school crossing guard at 209th Street and Western Avenue.
This is the heart of Harbor Gateway, a tough southern Los Angeles community where many young students attend 186th Street Elementary School, more than a mile and a half away in Gardena.
It is one of seven schools — only three elementary — in the Los Angeles Unified School District for which transportation is provided during regular school hours solely because of safety concerns. Students living in Harbor Gateway would otherwise have to cross railroad tracks and major freeway onramps and offramps to get to and from campus. The community is also home to dozens of paroled sex offenders.
Hernandez helps to see that the more than 490 students who ride the bus daily — nearly 60% of the school's enrollment — steer clear of busy Western Avenue and other potentially dangerous areas. Hernandez's son, Jared, 10, attends 186th Street and frequently rides the bus after school; he is picked up by his aunt while Hernandez attends college classes.
"Last year one of the mothers noticed a guy who was a predator living in the area who was hanging around and passing by the children at the stop," Hernandez, 41, said recently. "The principal called the police and we've never seen him again. But the school sends notes so that parents tell their kids not to talk to strangers."
Despite a 10% drop in crime in Harbor Gateway, the area is of special concern to parents with children in 186th Street after-school programs, which average 175 students daily.
Their lifeline is the yellow bus that arrives at the school at 4:15 p.m. to take them closer to their homes in Harbor Gateway.
Without the late bus, many children would be unable to participate in homework tutoring, dance and arts classes and other enrichment programs that school administrators said have helped to improve students' academic performance and social skills.
When funding from the Los Angeles Unified School District was cut this year for the late bus, more than 450 parents signed petitions and the school sought private donations to pay the $150-a-day expenses.
Parents and school officials were relieved recently when the district redirected about $20,000 in transportation funds to keep the bus running for the rest of the academic year. But further state budget cuts still could threaten the service.
"It was important for us to help the school continue to make the progress they're making with all their student population," said Enrique Boull't, L.A. Unified's interim chief operating officer. "Whether they're bused in or walk, all need a level playing field. But if [budget cuts] are enacted in December, we might have to go back to the drawing board."
The battle to keep the late bus symbolizes the unique challenges of 186th Street Elementary, which serves two distinct communities: its middle-income Gardena neighborhood, where about 40% of the students reside, and Harbor Gateway, a densely populated, high-poverty area that gained some notoriety in 2006, when black teenager Cheryl Green was killed in a hate crime by a member of a Latino gang.
There is virtually no green space where children can play in the 13-block area where most of the students live. The area complies with state laws governing the residency of paroled sex offenders, which prevent them from living within 2,000 feet of a park or school. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge last year invalidated that restriction and it is no longer being enforced in the county; the state is appealing.
The numbers of sex offenders fluctuate almost daily and at one point last year numbered more than 100. More recently about 40 parolees lived in the neighborhood, where they have access to rehabilitation services, said Brian Cook, senior lead officer in the Los Angeles Police Department's Harbor Division. Two officers are assigned just to monitor registered sex offenders in the area, he said.
"The after-school program and having a bus to bring them home when their families are getting home are essential," he added.
More than 80% of students at 186th Street are low-income, 36% are learning English, and 8% are homeless. But the school has steadily improved its standardized test scores with a recent Academic Performance Index of 852. The statewide target score is 800. Administrators attribute much of the success to after-school programs.
"If we can't get students home safely, the programs would be threatened," said Principal Marcia Sidney-Reed, a seeming whirlwind of energy who spent one recent afternoon checking on a ballet class, on volunteers helping students with their homework, and on students using the playground, among other activities.
Alicia Rios frequently must rely on public transportation that can take two hours to get her home from her baby-sitting job. The after-school program has allowed her daughters, Vanessa and Liliana Villanueva, to thrive.
"They're learning a lot after school, getting better grades, and I know they're in a safe place," said Rios, 30.
Vanessa, 9, has become accustomed to riding the bus and said she loves staying after school.
"I like sharing and being helpful," Vanessa said. "Sometimes when other kids try to do homework and don't know the answer, I say 'I'll help you.'"