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5 Districts Feel Pinch of Declining Enrollment

Times Staff Writer

They are called “graying neighborhoods"--subdivisions where the children have come and gone, and only the parents stay behind.

Rows of homes with few children translate into schools with declining enrollment. During most of the 1980s, a majority of the 29 school districts in Orange County showed signs of “graying.”

But this school year the trend has reversed. Twenty-four of the county’s 29 districts are now either stabilized in enrollment or growing. Only five school districts remain with projected losses of 100 or more students this school year.

In those still-declining school districts, each student lost means a big dollar drain.

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For instance, in Huntington Beach Union High School District, the state pays $3,219.17 per student per year to the school district. The expected decline of 1,285 full-time students means a loss of $4.1 million this year.

In addition to Huntington Beach, the other systems still showing major enrollment declines are Anaheim Union High School District, Fullerton Joint Union High School District, Garden Grove Unified and Laguna Beach Unified.

The high school districts are bottoming out from years of losses among the “feeder” elementary school districts. Virtually all the kindergartens and early grades in the county’s elementary schools are now growing. The national birth rate went up slightly in the early 1980s, and the schools are now reflecting that.

But for the high school districts, the decline continues. It will be several years before the so-called “echo of the baby boom” reaches that level.

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“It’s very frustrating,” said David Warfield, president of the Huntington Beach Union High School District school board.

The district--composed of Fountain Valley High, Westminster High and Edison, Marina, Ocean View and Huntington Beach high schools in Huntington Beach--has had constantly declining enrollment since its 1978-79 peak of 21,193 students.

Although it expects only 14,370 students this year, the school board has pledged to keep all six high schools open.

“We still have to provide the same services,” Warfield said. “Every school still must have a principal and a football field and basic equipment. But the money we’re losing (as student enrollment continues to decline) is a big piece of change.”

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To continue some extracurricular programs, the schools are holding bingo games and charging for some student activities that used to be free.

“We hate to do it. For instance, we’re having to tighten up on fees for use of our facilities--something we used to be very lenient with,”

Warfield said.

The under-enrolled high schools in Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley and Westminster are the legacy of a drop in elementary school students in the area about 10 years ago.

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The elementary “feeder” districts for Huntington Beach Union High School District all started showing severe enrollment drops in the 1970s.

But this year, those districts, Huntington Beach City Elementary, Ocean View Elementary, Fountain Valley Elementary and Westminster Elementary, are all projecting either slight growth or very small declines.

Enrollment Stabilizing

For instance, Fountain Valley Elementary School District has been plunging in enrollment since 1972-73, when it peaked at 11,866 students. The district this fall expects to level off around 6,000 students, with perhaps a gain of up to 20 students over the previous year. “We hope we’ve bottomed out,” said Cheryl Norton, spokeswoman for the district and a former school board member.

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“Some years we were losing the equivalent of a full school or more per year, since our schools were built to hold about 600 students. I have figures here that show we lost 877 students one year, 699 the next, then 553, 501, 562 and so on. We ended up having to close eight schools during our years in decline.

“Our years of declining enrollment are now affecting the high school district, and the high school district will have to go through several more years of decline,” she said.

Norton said Fountain Valley schools have reflected the pattern of graying neighborhoods.

Twenty years ago, Fountain Valley was building homes as rapidly as homes are going up in south Orange County and in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. But then “the kids grew up and the parents decided to keep their homes. The city has built up, and there’s no land left for new subdivisions,” she said.

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Lawrence Kemper, superintendent of the Huntington Beach Union High School District, said it will likely be 1992 before the spiral of decline that started 15 years ago in the elementary districts passes through the high schools.

Decline to Continue

In Anaheim Union High School District, which expects to lose 833 students this year, Supt. Cynthia Grennan expects the enrollment decline to continue for three more years.

In the Anaheim district, the high schools are Western High, Savanna High, Anaheim High, Magnolia High, Loara High--all in Anaheim--and Kennedy High in La Palma and Cypress High. The district reached its peak with 37,500 students in 1973-74. The district projects 20,297 this year.

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Fullerton Joint Union High School District has had a less steep decline in enrollment than the neighboring Anaheim district. Fullerton Joint Union High School District governs Fullerton High, Sunny Hills High and Troy High, all in Fullerton, and Buena Park High, La Habra High and Sonora High in La Habra.

The Fullerton district reached its peak in 1973-74, with 15,361 students. It is forecasting enrollment of 11,439 students this school year, a loss of 1,191.

“We believe we’ll continue to decline in enrollment until the 1991-92 school year,” said Ken Jones, acting Fullerton superintendent. After that year, we’ll start an upswing, but we’ll never get back to where we used to be in student enrollment.”

Laguna District

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In Laguna Beach, however, the end may be in sight.

“This will be our final year of decline,” Supt. Dennis Smith said.

Laguna Beach is a “unified” school district, one that has kindergarten through senior year in high school. All but two of Orange County’s 12 unified school districts this year show overall growth.

“We started our decline in 1977,” Smith said. “After this year, we expect to be growing because two new (housing) developments are scheduled for our district. In fact, over the next five years, we expect to be growing to about 3,500 students--almost to our peak again.”

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Laguna Beach Unified and Garden Grove Unified, the other unified district with declining enrollment, are showing growth in the lower grades, officials reported. But so far, high school-grade declines continue to overshadow elementary-grade enrollment increases.

The superintendents of both districts noted that the declines projected in their schools this year are relatively small. Garden Grove Unified forecasted a net drop of 358 students. Laguna Beach Unified projected a loss of only 130 students.

“It may take a year or two more before we stabilize overall,” said Ed Dundon, superintendent of Garden Grove Unified, “but we’re certainly showing growth already in kindergarten through sixth grade. It will take a little longer for that to bubble up to the high school grades.”

Thousands of Students Lost

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Garden Grove Unified peaked in 1968-69 with 53,114 students. It was not only the largest school district in Orange County but one of the biggest in the nation at that time. Declining enrollment has since brought the district down to the 35,931 students forecast for this year.

Dundon noted that the district’s projected decline this year is modest contrasted with when there would be net losses of more than 1,000 students annually. While the school district has been losing enrollment overall, it has had growth pockets, mainly in its eastern area, including part of the city of Santa Ana that is in Garden Grove Unified. Growth in the Santa Ana area of the school district has been so rapid that Garden Grove Unified this year will bus students from that area and reopen Carrillo School, which closed in 1980.

“It will still be awhile before all of our district is showing growth again,” Dundon said. “Almost all of the growth has been in the eastern part of Garden Grove Unified.”

On an optimistic note, he added: “While we’re still declining, we look for a turnaround--an upturn--in the early to mid-1990s. At least we’re not on the roller-coaster down slide we had throughout most of the 1980s.”

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