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Effects Felt Again in Rising County Enrollment : Baby Boom Still Rumbling in Schools

Times Staff Writer

The “echo of the baby boom” will be apparent this week and next as schools open throughout Orange County with a larger total enrollment for the third year in a row.

Robert D. Peterson, county superintendent of schools, said he expects an increase of about 1%, bringing countywide enrollment to about 340,500.

Enrollment peaked in Orange County in 1975 at 386,086 and declined every year after that until 1984, according to Audrey Capasso, a technician with the county Department of Education.

The turnaround that year and the continuing growth since then largely represents the “echo of the baby boom,” Capasso said. The smallest classes in most districts tend to be among high school seniors, while kindergartens are beginning to be overcrowded--even in districts with declining enrollment--with children of the baby boomers of the 1950s and ‘60s.

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Enrollment figures are crucial to school districts because of the money involved. Each student represents about $2,500 in state funding; a loss of students means little or no pay raise for teachers and other workers. Districts with declining numbers also must close schools.

By contrast, growing districts are assured of healthy funding but face problems with overcrowded classrooms.

The districts with the most growth are in Santa Ana and south Orange County. Most central and north county school districts are still losing enrollment, but not as much as in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Orange Unified School District, for instance, projects a decrease of only 260 students this year, contrasted with thousands of students lost in previous years.

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“If building of houses continues as now scheduled in our area, we expect our enrollment to level off in 1988-89 and to show a slight increase in 1989-90,” said Assistant Supt. H.C. Tanner.

Orange Unified covers a large slice of the county, including some undeveloped land planned for subdivisions. School buses, which crisscross the sprawling school district, were being readied last week for the back-to-school season.

Santa Ana Unified is expected to shoot past Garden Grove Unified in total enrollment this fall, thus becoming the biggest school district in the county in number of students. There has been constant and explosive population growth in Santa Ana for the last eight years, most of it from immigration from Asia, Mexico and Central America. Santa Ana Unified’s enrollment has increased about 1,000 students each year since 1978.

Schools in Santa Ana have long been overcrowded, school officials have said. To cope with that, the school system has done such innovative things as buying an old church and converting it to temporary classrooms. The church eventually will be razed and a new school built on the land.

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State Money Obtained

Santa Ana Unified’s school board also has been aggressive in seeking money for new schools and sites from the dwindling supply of urban land to build them on.

Within the last two years, the Santa Ana school board also has sought and obtained state money to build a new high school and six new elementary schools. Last week, the school board moved to get money for five more elementary schools and a new continuation high school.

To the south, Irvine Unified School District is opening a new elementary school this fall. As the planned community of Irvine continues to grow, so does its enrollment, said schools Supt. A. Stanley Corey.

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In addition to the new Brywood Elementary School, the district is adding to buildings at Irvine and Woodbridge high schools. “I wouldn’t say our schools are overcrowded now, but the situation in our high schools is certainly very tight,” Corey said.

The southernmost school districts in the county, Capistrano Unified and Saddleback Valley Unified, are experiencing growth triggered by new subdivisions.

At Capistrano Unified, about 750 new students are expected this fall. The district, which serves the Mission Viejo-San Juan Capistrano-Laguna Niguel-San Clemente area, had an enrollment last year of 19,100 students.

Interest Rates Affect Growth

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“The growth in this area coincides with the real estate market,” said Assistant Supt. William Eller. “When mortgage rates are lower, developers build and sell more, and the children follow.” Enrollment tended to level off in the early 1980s, when interest rates peaked, and began to grow again in recent years as interest rates declined and the housing market flourished, he said.

Capistrano Unified is building three new elementary schools, he said. One in Laguna Niguel and one in the San Clemente area will open in 1987; a third, also in the San Clemente area, will open in 1988.

Saddleback Valley Unified expects about 700 new students this school year, for a total of about 21,000, said Supt. Peter Hartman. He said the district, which already is cramped for classroom space, must add scores of temporary structures this fall, including 14 such makeshift rooms at the new Trabuco Hills High in Mission Viejo.

Saddleback Valley Unified plans to open one new elementary school in the Rancho Santa Margarita community in 1987, with temporary facilities. A permanent school at that site is planned in the fall of 1988, Hartman said.

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