By Stephanie Medina
Boyle Heights Beat
Every day at 5:30 a.m., Michelle Lemus, 15, wakes up to her phone’s alarm. This has been her weekday routine for almost three years.
“Even if I’m super sleepy, I know I have to get up as soon as my alarm rings, or I know I’ll be late [to school],” the Felicitas & Gonzalo Méndez High School student says.
Lemus used to live two blocks away from Hollenbeck Middle School and could leave for school a few minutes before class started. But in the summer of 2014, her family moved to Bell, and her daily commute to Méndez High School now takes up to 60 minutes, which means she has to leave her house before 7 a.m. to catch a bus and a Metro Gold Line train.
Students like Lemus who have had to move far away from their schools because of high rent prices often struggle to have healthy social lives, all while making sure they keep grades strong.
The summer of 2014, the landlord raised the rent from $900 to $1,200 a month for a two-bedroom Boyle Heights home where Lemus’ family lived. The home was not covered under rent control, and the rent was too high for her single mother, Erika Cabrera, to pay. Cabrera wanted to find an affordable home in the community, but had to look elsewhere. The family ended up moving into a one-bedroom apartment in Bell for $800 a month.
Lemus decided not to transfer to a school in Bell because she and her sister love Méndez High School, and they didn’t want to start over at a new school. She and her sister, a junior, travel together to and from school.
Lemus’ mother recognizes that the long commutes are difficult for her daughters, but says attending Mendez is best for them and their academics.
A grueling schedule
For six years, Jocelyn Castaneda, 16, and her family lived in a Boyle Heights home with rent of $1,200 a month. In 2015, the house, located on Guirado Street, was sold, and the new owners notified them of plans to increase the rent. The house was not protected by rent control.
The family wanted to continue living in Boyle Heights, but her parents felt rent prices in the neighborhood were too high. They moved to South Gate, where they currently pay $1,500 per month.
Castaneda traveled four miles to get to school when she lived in Boyle Heights. After moving to South Gate, school is about 13 miles away. As a result, her commute time has gone from four minutes to an hour.
“Now that I live in South Gate, it’s 10 times harder to socialize,” the Bravo Medical Magnet High School junior says. “Before, I was able to do so with the people I already know within the Boyle Heights area. [Now] I have no friends and rarely am able to go out, due to the distance.”
Castaneda has early mornings and late nights. She wakes at 5 a.m. and catches the school bus at 6:15 a.m. Her mother says it’s worth it.
“The distance of getting Jocelyn to school is not a big challenge,” says Sara Castaneda, “because even though we live more than 10 miles from school, there is free transportation.”
The bus drops her off at 7:15 a.m., 35 minutes before class starts. Although there’s a wait until school starts, she says the school bus is her most reliable and economical source of transportation.
“We prefer to get up early, instead of spending money on gasoline,” says her mother.
Jocelyn also gets home from school later than she used to because she depends on the bus.
“I procrastinate, and I feel as if I don’t have enough time to get assignments done, getting home at the time I do,” she says.
Lemus understands. As part of her routine on school days, she takes the 260 bus in Bell to Atlantic Boulevard, where she transfers to the Gold Line, which stops in front of Méndez. She considers herself lucky if it takes 40 minutes to get to school. On days with bad weather, it takes longer. She says the commute is stressful.
Some teachers are understanding about commute-related tardiness.
“I would not have any problems helping a student that is late because of a long distance,” says Daniel Reveles, a teacher at Méndez High School.
He’s noticed the effects tardiness has had on a couple of students. When one student who had been doing well in his third period class switched to his first period class, he began showing up late. “Everything fell apart after that,” Reveles says.
There was also the student who would ride his bike from Compton all the way to Boyle Heights to get to Méndez, Reveles recalls. The student had to leave his house by 6 a.m. and ride home after school, too.
Xochitl Cervantes-Luna, a Méndez counselor, says there’s an increase in the number of tardies on rainy days. Kids who travel further distances, she says, sometimes arrive late because rain throws public transportation schedules off.
Luna says school administrators can help parents learn what their rights are, what constitutes truancy and how to clear an absence.
Data lacking on moves
It’s hard to get a handle on just jow many students are moving out of Boyle Heights to find affordable housing. A Los Angeles Unified School District spokesperson said the district doesn’t track students mobility or transfers.
The district does, however, offer resources for students who live far from their schools. To be considered, they must fill out a questionnaire about their living situations.
Students may be eligible to receive free Tap cards or tokens for transportation, according to Cervantes-Luna. While the questionnaire is confidential, administrators can disclose information to counselors, who can talk to a student’s first period teacher about accommodating the student. A student might be allowed to make up a missed quiz or get tutoring on a missed lesson.
Understanding teachers ‘the best’
Lemus says she appreciates teachers who are understanding. “Teachers who understand my situation are literally the best,” she says. “I understand that it’s my problem if I get there late, but I love the fact that they’re comprehending and willing to help with whatever I missed out on.”
Despite the obstacles, Lemus plans to continue commuting to school. “Even though it can be a challenge, I consider it to be worth it because this is the place I was born and raised in and know as my community,” she says.
Stephanie Medina is a rising Senior at Felicitas & Gonzalo Méndez High School. She devotes her free time to different community programs and participates in events that matter to her and her community. She hopes to major in communications and use it to better her community of Boyle Heights.