A big increase in student enrollment has long 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 out and others not to move in, officials say.
Enrollment grew by only 2,000 this year to about 641,700, after three years of increases averaging nearly 15,000 annually.
The Los Angeles Unified School District can easily absorb this year's increase, thanks to altered school calendars and the opening of several new 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 in the western San Fernando Valley and on the Westside under the district's Capacity Adjustment Program (CAP).
Teaching positions are being eliminated at some receiver schools this year, and if slowed growth continues, some may be closed or turned into magnets or special centers, district officials say. In the Valley, 27 teachers were transferred after officials eliminated 45 positions, said Associate Supt. Sara A. Coughlin, who oversees the Valley's 131 elementary schools.
Serrania Avenue School Principal Marian Fortunati has watched the enrollment of CAP students plunge on her Woodland Hills campus.
"Two years ago, we had about 160 (CAP) children. . . . This year, we have about 30," Fortunati said. "I begged and pleaded for more."
Fortunati avoided having to eliminate teaching spots because of an unexpected rise in enrollment of children from the neighborhood that offset the drop in bused-in students. But Principal Esther Macias, who heads Pinewood Avenue Elementary School in Tujunga, was not so lucky: She was forced to transfer a teacher after the number of CAP children fell from about 300 to 200.
"We have many empty classrooms," Macias said of her school, which can hold more than 1,000 students but has only 800 now.
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 daily ride school buses to attend voluntary integration programs such as magnet schools, and thousands more are transported to special education classes.)
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 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 yellow buses are making the daily trips across town to deliver students to Union Avenue's receiver school on the Westside.
At Marquez Elementary in Pacific Palisades, Principal Jacqueline Ota said 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."
On the Westside, so far, eight teachers have been shifted to other schools, and 26 teaching positions, vacant because of retirements or filled by substitute teachers, were eliminated.
District officials think 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."
Individual schools plan for the coming school year from forecasts developed the previous spring at meetings that principals call the "CAP Road Show." Demographers look at such factors as the number of births in the city five years earlier and past patterns of population shifts.
No one is quite sure why the expected bulge didn't develop, but school board member Mark Slavkin suggested that the spring 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 due partly to the opening of several new schools, the shifting of more overcrowded schools to multitrack calendars and other strategies aimed at enabling children to attend schools in their own neighborhoods.
Slavkin said if enrollment fails to pick up, 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 only the last arrivals" at already-filled inner-city schools, he said.
Eventually, the district will need to decide what to do with schools where under-enrollment appears to be permanent, Slavkin said. Some under-used schools might be combined, while others could become magnet schools, specialized language schools, or centers for immigrant children who speak no English.
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