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Enrollments at Oak Park Unified Reach Record Levels : Education: The surge has forced school administrators to adopt stringent proofs of residency.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oak Park Unified school officials have reported record-high enrollments at almost every grade level even though the new school year does not start for another two weeks.

The surge in enrollment has forced administrators to adopt stringent proofs of residency, and in some cases has resulted in legitimate students being turned away from overcrowded neighborhood schools.

“They’ve just appeared,” Assistant Supt. Stan Mantooth told the school board this week. “We may have as many as 100 students over projection.”

That is quite a number in the small, 2,500-student district.

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Bewildered district officials have speculated that the sudden influx is partly due to the community’s rapid growth--but also because ineligible students have been lured by Oak Park Unified’s sparkling reputation.

To cull out students from other communities, officials have established strict screening procedures. To qualify, parents must show three different forms of residency identification, such as utility bills, rental agreements or escrow papers.

“We’re keeping a very tight hold on residency requirements so that we don’t overload our current situation,” district Supt. Marilyn Lippiatt said.

Lippiatt said there is good reason why dozens of unqualified parents have tried to gain their children’s admission to the Oak Park district.

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“It is a quiet, peaceful, well-planned suburb and people want to live here,” she said. “And we have good schools.”

On the latest Scholastic Aptitude Tests released this week, Oak Park High School seniors outperformed most of their college-bound peers, boasting the second-highest verbal test scores and the third-highest math scores in Ventura County.

Oak Park schools also posted top scores in reading and writing on the California Learning Assessment System tests this spring at the fourth-, eighth- and 10th-grade levels.

The sudden growth exceeded district expectations at three schools of the district’s six schools: Oak Park High School, Medea Creek Middle School and Red Oak Elementary.

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Oak Park High Principal Jeff Chancer said his school is already 20 to 25 students over its projected enrollment with 688 students, compared to 617 students last year.

“It’s a little precarious right now because we don’t know how many of those will show up,” Chancer said.

If all 688 students arrive on the first day of school Sept. 8, the district will be forced to hire a new teacher, Chancer said Friday. Anticipating some growth, Oak Park High has already added three new teachers this year.

Chancer said class size will average about 30 students, but acknowledged that the enrollment boom has boosted class size to 38 students in one English class.

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Red Oak Elementary opened last year with 270 students and only two classrooms. This year, 375 students will attend the new school, which has added six classrooms and an administrative building with a library and cafeteria.

“This was not a huge surprise,” Lippiatt said of Red Oak’s growth. It was anticipated because families are moving into new housing developments nearby.

But a boost in enrollment at Medea Creek Middle School did catch its administration by surprise. Last year 535 students attended, while 605 are enrolled so far this year.

District officials expected enrollment figures to increase somewhat at the middle and high school level because of a population boom in those grades.

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“We have what we call a ‘bubble’ moving through our system,” Mantooth said, explaining that even if no new families moved into Oak Park an influx would be evident at those grade levels.

Growth has been a mainstay since the Oak Park District was founded to serve a new planned community in 1977.

Since then, Oak Park voters have approved six bond issues totaling $29 million and built six schools.

“We have had as many as 2,000 residential units built in Oak Park in the past six to eight years,” Mantooth said. That rapid growth has caused an enrollment explosion, particularly at the elementary level.

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At Oak Hills Elementary School, for example, crowding has caused school officials to turn away 14 families trying to enroll their children in kindergarten. All but two of those families were new to Oak Park, Principal Anthony Knight said.

“I really feel very badly for them,” he said. “It is hard for them to understand why.”

The reasons are clear for school officials, however. Oak Hills already has 95 kindergartners enrolled in three classes and physically cannot accommodate 14 more kids.

Consequently, those children will have to attend Red Oak Elementary, a quarter-mile away. But distance is not the issue parents are upset about.

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“The issue is that their child will be the only one on the block at Red Oak,” Knight said. Parents are also upset that siblings may be attending separate schools, he said.

District officials stand by their decision not to add a fourth kindergarten class at Oak Hills. “Ultimately it is better for the kids because it doesn’t overcrowd the school site,” Mantooth said.

Some parents agree.

“We have limited physical resources, and since Red Oak does have the space . . . that doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable decision,” Oak Hills PTA co-president Randi Jones said.

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Susan Kaye, whose daughter is a third-grader at Oak Hills, said she sympathizes with the families that have been turned away.

“I really don’t think it is fair that they are being asked to go,” she said. “But the site of the facility has to be taken into consideration.”

Lippiatt said her office has received about 100 complaints from parents whose children were either denied enrollment due to the residency restrictions or, in the case of Oak Hills, forced to attend a different school.

On the first day of school parents will be asked to sign a residency affidavit stating that their child spends a minimum of five nights a week in Oak Park.

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“It is an affirmation that when people say they live here that they actually live here,” Lippiatt explained.

Many Oak Park residents support that hard line.

“It is an extreme measure but we have parents in the neighborhood who can’t send their kids to the neighborhood schools because there are too many kids,” Jones said. “This is a wonderful school system, and we want to let everyone in, but we can’t. We don’t have room.”


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