A big increase in enrollment has been as much a part of fall in Los Angeles city schools as new shoes and notebooks--but not this year.
When heads were counted last month, 12,000 fewer students than projected had enrolled--possibly because riots, earthquakes and lack of jobs have led some families to move and led others to stay away, officials say.
Enrollment grew by only 2,000 this year to about 641,700 after three years of annual increases averaging nearly 15,000.
The Los Angeles Unified School District can easily absorb this year's increase, thanks to altered school calendars and the opening of several schools in the inner city. As a result, there are fewer overflow children from crowded inner-city neighborhoods who need to be bused to "receiver" schools on the Westside and in the west San Fernando Valley.
Teaching positions are being eliminated at some receiver schools and some may be closed or turned into magnets or special centers if slower growth continues, district officials say.
Some inner-city schools could also shrink if the trend continues.
"Our enrollment is down by about 200," said Rita Caldera, principal at Union Avenue Elementary, just west of downtown Los Angeles. "We lost some to a new school that opened nearby, Belmont No. 3, but even taking those into account, we are down. We have always exceeded our official capacity, but this year I've had to close down a kindergarten, lose two teachers and disperse three classes."
Caldera attributes the drop to "the economic situation--lack of jobs, an increase in crime. People are fearful of the neighborhood, earthquakes and the riots."
For at least a decade, Caldera said, a steady flow of immigrants into the neighborhood has meant a growing enrollment at the school.
"You never thought about the school losing students," she said. "You knew a whole bunch were waiting to come in; this year they didn't."
As a result, fewer school buses are making the daily trips across town to deliver students to Union Avenue's receiver school, Pacific Palisades Elementary. The school district's Capacity Adjustment Program (CAP) pairs overcrowded schools with receiver schools that would otherwise be underused.
"We got no new CAP children this year, whereas in past years we would get 70 to 90," Palisades Principal Terri Arnold said.
"I had one teaching vacancy I didn't fill and I'm still losing another teacher," Arnold said.
At nearby Marquez Elementary, Principal Jacqueline Ota said that only a small group of new students have arrived from 36th Street School, its sender school near Western Avenue and Jefferson Boulevard.
"Some CAP children left in the spring after the riots," Ota said. "Some moved in with relatives out of state, and some have come back into the city but not into the same community. Now that there are fewer jobs in Los Angeles, people who might normally come seeking employment aren't."
In the west Valley, where many receiver schools are concentrated, 27 teachers have been transferred and 45 positions were eliminated. On the Westside, eight teachers have been shifted to other schools and 26 teaching positions that were vacant because of retirements or filled by substitute teachers were eliminated.
District officials believe that the dramatic dip may be an aberration.
"It's been an unusual year," said Joyce Peyton, director of the district's Office of School Utilization. "You can't use this year as a snapshot or barometer of the future. . . . Things happened, things we hope don't happen again."
Each school plans for the coming school year from forecasts developed the previous spring at meetings principals call the "CAP road show." Demographers look at such factors as the birthrate five years earlier and patterns of population shifts.
No one is sure why the expected bulge did not develop, but school board member Mark Slavkin suggested that the riots, the June earthquakes and the depressed Los Angeles job market have contributed to a situation in which "people who otherwise would move here are not and those who would stay here are leaving."
Slavkin and Peyton say the decline in bused students is partly because several schools have opened, more schools have shifted to multitrack calendars, and from other strategies aimed at enabling children to attend schools in their own neighborhoods.
Nearly 4,000 fewer children are being bused to receiver schools this year to alleviate crowding. Last year, 20,581 were bused out; this year it is 16,582. An additional 49,000 students a day ride school buses to attend voluntary integration programs such as magnet schools, and thousands more are transported to special education classes.
The financial impact of the lower than expected enrollment is minimal, Slavkin said. The district loses some state money based on average daily attendance but saves on staff and budget expenses. "The school system does not have the ready capacity to absorb 10,000 kids . . . ," he said. "It gives us some breathing room to plan."
Slavkin said that if enrollment fails to increase, one long-range solution would be to shift from the CAP toward more choices for parents. "A lot of people find Westside schools attractive and feel they shouldn't be limited" to filling their seats with the last arrivals at overcrowded inner-city schools, he said. Eventually, the district will need to decide what to do with schools where under-enrollment appears to be permanent, he said. Some underused schools might be combined, while others could become magnets, specialized language schools or centers for immigrant children who do not speak English.
"But we need to be careful," Slavkin said, before schools are changed, leased or closed. "The demographic situation can change rapidly and this year appears to be an aberration."
Slowdown in Enrollment Enrollment in Los Angeles schools from kindergarten through the 12th grade rose only 2,000 this year, far less than district projections. In the previous three years, enrollment grew by an average of almost 15,000 annually. In thousands '80: 538,596 '81: 543,791 '82: 550,127 '83: 556,865 '84: 565,570 '85: 578,760 '86: 590,287 '87: 592,273 '88: 594,802 '89: 610,149 '90: 625,461 '91: 639,699 '92: 641,700 (est.) Source: Los Angeles Unified School District