Where did all the Belmont High students go?

When the school bells rang and classroom doors popped open, the hallways at Belmont Senior High School just south of Echo Park would turn chaotic and claustrophobic as thousands of students stampeded to get to the next class. “It was literally like trying to move around a New York subway, ” said Don Redifer, dean of students, recalling the scene repeated several times a day. “It was shoulder to shoulder.” But this year the hallways at the 87-year-old campus, while still busy, are no where nearly as crowded as Belmont High has gone from one of Los Angeles’ largest high schools to one of its smallest.

Thanks to the Los Angeles’ school district’s massive building campaign and a drop in enrollment, Belmont High, long a symbol of the urban schools gone bad, this year enrolled less than 1,500 students. That still may seem huge to many folks but you have to remember that Belmont’s enrollment topped 5,000 for almost a decade in addition to busing an additional 1,000 students to other campuses, say school administrators. How small is Belmont today? Well, it’s now about half the size of arch-rival John Marshall High School in Los Feliz and even smaller than the new Edward Roybal Learning Center, which opened a few blocks away last year and sucked up a chunk of Belmont’s student population. And, for the first time in more than 25 years, Belmont High returned to a traditional semester schedule instead of a year-around, three-track schedule.

“People love it,” said Senior Assistant Principal Stephen Koffman of the semester-schedule. “It’s been a great adjustment to our school.” There are even plans to add middle school students to Belmont High to take advantage of the extra space. “Now we have rooms that are not even occupied,” said Redifer. “Having the space we have now is quite shocking.”

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with a baby Belmont. Senior Steve Ruiz, who is enrolled in an arts school that operates independently at Belmont, lost a batch of Belmont friends and classmates with the opening of the Roybal Learning Center, leaving an even smaller circle of people to socialize with and share gossip in his corner of the campus. “You say something to someone and half a day later everyone knows.”

Photo: Belmont Senior High School website

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