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Student Cramming : County’s Schools Being Stretched Past Capacity

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Camarillo, high school students might start going to school in shifts, attending school in the morning or afternoon. In Ojai and Oxnard, officials might pursue a school bond, even though Pleasant Valley lost its fourth attempt this month and Ventura County residents have not approved one in five years.

In Ventura, the superintendent is pleading with city officials to limit development permits in the east end of town.

And in Simi Valley, the school board has gone into the real estate business, trying to sell off district land to raise funds to build new schools.

Desperate times, as they say, call for desperate measures, and nowhere is that more true than in Ventura County’s schools, where enrollment has grown by 16,600 students in the past decade while funding for schools to handle them continues to dwindle.

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“Our biggest problem is we don’t have any funds for construction,” Ventura County Supt. Charles Weis said. “There’s nothing to draw from.”

And there’s no relief in sight for the cramped campuses. A record kindergarten class hit the schools this year, their younger brothers and sisters not far behind. Portable classrooms are popping up on nearly every campus to house the booming student population, which is stressing common facilities such as lunch areas, restrooms and playgrounds.

And state school construction bonds, requiring a simple majority for approval, have failed to even make the ballot in recent years, forcing districts to pursue local bonds requiring a two-thirds majority.

“We’ve got to make a decision to invest in this generation of children,” Weis said. “Especially the good ones. We don’t seem to balk at money for prisons for the bad ones.”

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In the past 30 years years, California has dropped from fifth to 41st in per-pupil spending , allocating only half as much to each student as New Jersey and Alaska, which spend nearly $10,000 per pupil. California, which spends $4,724 per student, is well below the national average of $5,879.

And while Ventura County has added enough students in the past decade to fill its largest school district, only seven schools have been built to house the influx. That’s one school for every 2,300 new students across the county.

“We’re at a breaking point,” said William Studt, superintendent of the Oxnard Union High School District, one of the fastest-growing and most crowded districts in the county. “We’ve got teachers traveling, parking lots stuffed and our common facilities are maxed.”

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Sitting in an office overlooking a valley where bulldozers clear the path for hundreds of new homes--homes that will bring unanticipated children into the already cramped classes--Studt laments the stopgap measures his district has had to employ this year.

Like many districts that are bursting at the seams, Oxnard has had to hire new teachers--forcing the reshuffling of classrooms a few weeks into school--shut down common facilities like computer rooms and counseling centers to make room for classrooms, and move portables onto parking lots and playgrounds.

The district, where every school is at least 200 students over capacity, has grown by 450 students in the past year, and expects 1,500 more by the year 2000. Those numbers don’t include students from houses that have not yet been built.

In the Ventura Unified School District, Buena High School opened to 200 more students than expected this year due to development on the east end of town. Administrators there went around to classes during the first few weeks of school, urging students to keep their cool--despite classes exceeding 60 students, jam-packed hallways doubling the time it takes to get to lockers, and a lack of desks so severe some students have had to sit on the floor.

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“We told them, ‘Don’t get upset when someone bumps you in the halls,” Assistant Principal Brian Smith said.

But students say it’s hard not to. Huddled among her friends during a break between classes, junior Kate Chapek, 16, said she dreads the class-to-class commute. “You can’t get to your locker,” Kate said, glancing at the hoards of students standing in the common. “We’re more defensive. We’re rude to each other. You have to be to get where you’re going.”

And the students keep coming. A surprise surge in enrollment flooded Ventura schools with 800 more students than anticipated.

“This year is a lot worse than last year,” said senior Vickie Chen, 17, who considers her 30-student Advanced Placement English class small. “At least then you could get through the halls.”

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The number of children in younger grades also is mushrooming, catching schools off guard with a lack of teachers and classrooms. Just this summer, the Ventura district was fined $281,000 for exceeding the state-mandated class size of 30 in its first- through third-grade classes for the 1994-95 school year.

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And some parents say crowds are most difficult to handle for the younger students, who aren’t as flexible as older students when it comes to matters such as food and bathroom breaks.

At Madera School in Simi Valley, elementary students in the last lunch period sometimes must eat sitting on the floor. Teachers and parents there have filed a long list of complaints with the district about the crowded conditions--ranging from increased fighting and discipline problems because of too many children on the playground to a lack of toilet paper and soap in three restrooms serving more than 700 students.

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“The kids can’t wash their hands with soap and water,” said Denise Dean Guerrero, a mother of three children at the school. “My son was out of school for four days with bacterial pneumonia, the sickest he’s ever been. The last thing he needs is to return to a school without toilet paper.”

In the Oxnard Elementary District--where year-round school already is in place--schools are so crowded that many students cannot attend their neighborhood school and must go across town.

New schools, built to ease the tension caused by new development, are bursting with children. Tierra Linda School in Camarillo opened nearly at capacity last year.

And even those districts that have not added students in the past decade are feeling the growing pains of development, as schools in older neighborhoods see enrollment drops while those in the new areas grow more crowded every day.

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In the Simi Valley Unified School District, many elementary schools are not accepting new students, while some in the city’s central neighborhoods have so few students that the school board considered closing a campus last year.

EFFECT ON STUDENTS

What effect do such conditions have on a student’s ability to learn? In addition to increasing tension and stretching supplies, the influx of students also severely inflates class size.

Most studies show that student achievement is hindered when classes reach even into the mid-20s. The average class size in Ventura County is 31.5, compared with a state average of 29.0. And California already has the largest student-to-teacher ratio in the nation.

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Major studies of class size by both the U.S. Department of Education and a group of researchers at Tennessee State University show that reducing the number of students in a class does not make a difference in achievement--as measured by test scores--unless the classes have fewer than 20 students.

That is, students in a class of 38 students perform just as well on standardized tests as those in a class of 21. The ideal class size: 15 to 17.

But many teachers, administrators and students say achievement should be measured by more than just test scores. They say smaller classes lead to more one-on-one attention for students.

In Ventura County, six school districts are taking advantage of a state program which pays districts $135 per pupil to keep certain classes smaller than 21 students. Marilyn Beal, who teaches 20-student freshman English classes at Buena High School in Ventura, said the smaller classes provide a better learning environment and education.

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“In a larger class, you might think twice about assigning an extra essay because of the paper load,” Beal said.

Keeping classes small, however, requires extra rooms and extra teachers. The Conejo Valley Unified School District estimated this year that it would cost the district $1.2 million to reduce the maximum class size by just one student.

But money--the means for hiring new teachers, building new schools and updating overused facilities--is nowhere to be found. The most recent state school construction bond was rejected by voters in June 1994. And the last-minute political wrangling in the Legislature has prevented bond measures from even making it to the ballot over the past two years.

When Proposition 13 passed in 1978, districts could no longer put bonds before voters because of the proposition’s strict limits on raising property taxes to pay back the borrowed money.

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Proposition 46, passed in 1986, again made it possible for districts to ask voters for money for schools through general obligation bonds. But such bonds require a two-third’s majority for proposal. Proposition 170, which would have reduced that to a simple majority, was defeated in 1993.

Since 1986, Ventura County schools have put 12 local bonds before voters, but only four have passed, none in the past five years. Of the eight that didn’t pass, all received more than 50% support.

Pleasant Valley voters have rejected a bond four times, but each time the bond--which started out at $71 million but was reduced to $55 million for the second, third and fourth tries--received more than 59.9% of the vote.

Oxnard Union High School District, where voters rejected a $45-million bond in 1992, decided not to place another one on the ballot after polling residents this summer. Of the 380 households polled in June, 77% said they believed overcrowding was a serious problem but only 57% were willing to pay. The measure would have cost households $7 per $100,000 of assessed value and would have gone to build a seventh school.

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Despite recent failed attempts to pass school bonds and the growing anti-tax sentiment, some districts are forging ahead with new plans for a bond. The Ojai Unified School District, which is growing by about 100 students per year, has formed a committee of residents to study the issue and poll residents in the coming months about a possible bond.

But only 25% of Ojai Valley residents have children in the local schools. With school bonds failing, some groups are turning to other fund-raising measures.

The California Teachers Assn. announced last month that it plans to spend $3.8 million on a campaign to raise the sales tax by 1% to fund public education. If enough signatures are gathered, the measure could appear on the 1998 ballot and raise $3 billion annually for public education.

But until the money comes in, schools across the state and in Ventura County are forced to find other ways to relieve overcrowding: such as changing schedules, bringing in portable classrooms and altering district boundaries.

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Three Ventura County Districts--Oxnard Elementary, Fillmore Unified, Ventura Unified--already have switched to year-round school, a move that provides room for about 33% more students. But other areas have resisted. Pleasant Valley residents have protested the move three times before the school board.

And a year-round schedule is not an option for most high schools, where administrators say the move would fragment classes, increase scheduling problems and disrupt extracurricular activities and sports seasons.

In Oxnard Union High School District, administrators are talking about sending some students to school in the morning and others in the afternoon. The district’s superintendent acknowledges that such a schedule would wreak havoc on athletics and other extracurricular activities as well as make scheduling for smaller, specialized classes a nightmare.

“These are schedules of last resort. They are not efficient and positive ways to conduct school, but sometimes it’s what has to happen,” Studt said.

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SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS

The most common way of dealing with overcrowding is bringing portable classrooms onto campus. But the structures are costly--at about $80,000 each--and can only be used if space is available on the campus.

Administrators say bringing in portables helps in the short term, by providing classrooms for additional students. But those same students use the school’s lunchrooms, restrooms and auditoriums, which usually are not upgraded when portables are moved onto campus.

“Those impacts are very hard for people to perceive,” said Ojai Unified Assistant Supt. Ronald Barney. “They might say, you’ve got 30 extra kids? Hire a teacher and away you go. But you also have to think about transportation, food services, and wear and tear on your facilities.”

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Other solutions include redistricting--a politically unpopular decision that only helps those districts that still have space available at some schools. Ventura Unified is a district in that situation, but redrawing the boundary lines to ease overcrowding at Buena High could put those living across the street from the school into the Ventura High School zone.

In some cases, school officials are starting at one source of the problem: new development that is not paying its way. Officials say development fees pay only about 40% of the cost for a new school.

Moorpark Supt. Thomas Duffy attends planning meetings, reminding city officials to keep schools in mind when planning for growth.

“It is extremely important to have planning commissioners, the City Council, and, of course, developers recognize that we have standards, that every child has a place to be educated in a place that will be high quality,” Duffy said.

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His aggressive pursuit of outside funding has enabled the fast-growing district to build five schools in the past 11 years.

But in Simi Valley, developers of the Wood Ranch subdivision went broke after building houses but before building a school. Developers agreed to deed some land to the school district. But until the district sells off the land to pay for a new school, new children flood into nearby Madera or Lincoln schools.

In Ventura, school officials are trying to get tougher, asking city officials to limit development permits. The district also announced last week that it would need to triple developers’ fees to fund the three new schools needed to accommodate planned growth.

Other districts have more unusual solutions. Camarillo High School buys new desks by soliciting donations from parents, who then get their names inscribed on the new desks.

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But some districts are simply hanging a no vacancy sign on the door. Oak Park, the county’s fastest growing district, has implemented a strict proof-of-residency policy in an attempt to keep out non-residents.

And Ventura school officials have tracked down Buena High School students not living in the district, through home visits and neighbors’ tips, and forced them to return to their schools. But officials say the plan has not eased the student flow from new development and the cash crunch from the state.

“To get down to the nitty-gritty, we can’t pass a bond issue,” said Joseph Spirito, superintendent of the Ventura Unified School District. “We’re sitting on land where we could build, but we don’t have the money.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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A Decade of Growth

Here are the ten fastest-growing districts in Ventura County over the past 10 years. The numbers for 2000 are projections only. Not included are districts that enroll fewer than 500 students. Overall, the county’s public school enrollment has grown by 16% over the past decade, from 105,665 in the 1985-86 school year to 122,256 in 1995-96. It is expected to grow by another 10%, or 12,173 students, in the next five years.

OAK PARK

ENROLLMENT

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1985/86: 1,034

1995/96: 2,968

2000/01: 3,033

GROWTH RATE: 187%

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MOORPARK

ENROLLMENT

1985/86: 2,890

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1995/96: 6,587

2000/01: 7,854

GROWTH RATE: 128%

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Pleasant Valley

ENROLLMENT

1985/86: 5,035

1995/96: 6,945

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2000/01: 8,100

GROWTH RATE: 38%

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Ojai

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ENROLLMENT

1985/86: 3,120

1995/96: 4,100

2000/01: 4,500

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GROWTH RATE: 31%

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Rio

ENROLLMENT

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1985/86: 2,207

1995/96: 2,806

2000/01: 3,036

GROWTH RATE: 27%

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OXNARD ELEMENTARY

ENROLLMENT

1985/86: 10,924

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1995/96: 13,683

2000/01: 14,511

GROWTH RATE: 25%

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OXNARD UNIFIED

ENROLLMENT

1985/86: 11,046

1995/96: 12,992

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2000/01: 14,530

GROWTH RATE: 18%

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HUENEME

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ENROLLMENT

1985/86: 6,964

1995/96: 8,018

2000/01: 8,587

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GROWTH RATE: 15%

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SANTA PAULA ELEMENTARY

ENROLLMENT

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1985/86: 3,121

1995/96: 3,448

2000/01: --

GROWTH RATE: 10%

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VENTURA UNIFIED

ENROLLMENT

1985/86: 14,837

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1995/96: 16,056

2000/01: 17,007

GROWTH RATE: 8%

Source: State, Department of Education and area school districts.

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