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School Boundaries Often Lines in the Sand

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Times Staff Writer

In the fast-growing suburbs of Southern California, where few things matter more to parents than their schools, the lines that separate attendance areas often double as boundaries of class and culture, race and ethnicity.

District administrators tinker with them at their peril.

Consider the case of the Capistrano Unified School District, in south Orange County, where some parents are angrily protesting the coming transfer of their children to a gleaming new $67-million high school.

Capistrano parents and students lament the breaking of personal bonds and family traditions that can come with changing schools. They worry about trading a high-achieving school for one with no track record.

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“It’s a different place -- a whole different element out there,” said Catrina Crawford, who fought the plan to send her children to the new school, which will draw from disparate neighborhoods in the sprawling district, including less affluent, primarily Latino areas.

“It’s like we’re sending our kids to another state. They’re going to go to school with kids from families we don’t know -- a lot of them will be from lower-income and single-parent homes.”

“We’re not rancheros,” agreed another mother, Vickie Patterson, using the Spanish word for rancher.

Capistrano Unified, in which poorer Latino immigrant neighborhoods are surrounded by more affluent beach communities and housing developments, illustrates how growth has forced school districts to navigate greater ethnic and economic diversity in the hallways of newly built schools, educators say.

“Changing boundaries are one of the hardest things schools have to deal with,” said Samantha Bauer, a spokeswoman for the Elk Grove Unified School District, near Sacramento, where 24 proposed schools would reshuffle the demographics of the district.

“Parents talk about losing academic programs and test scores, but what they’re really saying is ‘Leave my neighborhood alone. Don’t make us mix.’ ”

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In Chino Hills, middle-class parents balked last year at new boundaries that would send their children to a new elementary school in a poor minority neighborhood. In Fontana, where student enrollment is expected to swell 15% in the next five years, officials say they are braced for opposition to plans for moving students from entrenched neighborhoods.

Last month, trustees for the 50,000-student Capistrano Unified district approved changes in attendance boundaries to apportion more than 14,000 high school students among five existing campuses and the new San Juan Hills High School. The move will affect thousands of students entering high school when the new campus opens in 2006 at the eastern end of San Juan Capistrano.

The vote came after months of stormy debate, angry phone calls and e-mails to school officials and lobbying by local politicians. In March, on a day students were to take state assessment tests, parents in one neighborhood kept their children home to protest Supt. James A. Fleming’s recommendation to the trustees. Nearly 1,000 people attended a subsequent hearing on the new boundaries, at which more than 140 people pleaded their case before the school board.

After the board voted, parents in one gated community began the lengthy legal process to secede from the district. Another group of parents say they will announce at a district meeting tonight that they intend to launch a campaign to recall the trustees, in part because of their vote on the boundaries.

“This has been one hell of an experience,” Capistrano Trustee John Casabianca told parents. “We have taken a lot of heat, and our communities are being pulled apart and divided.”

The new boundaries will bring students from distinct communities together at the new high school. About a third of the 2,200 students at San Juan Hills High will be from Latino families, many of them immigrants and English learners living in low-income apartments. To achieve a balance and fill the school to capacity, Fleming will pull in students from Capistrano Beach and Ladera Ranch, two wealthier neighborhoods in surrounding cities.

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Perhaps most angered by the plan were scores of parents in Capistrano Beach, a neighborhood perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean. After more than three decades within the attendance boundary of nearby San Clemente High School, the community will eventually send about 400 teenagers about 10 miles inland to San Juan Hills High when it opens, under the district’s plan.

San Clemente High has been a focal point in the tightknit community, fostering an allegiance that spans generations.

“My mother went to San Clemente, my brothers and I went, and we think our children should go,” Crawford said. “There is something to be said for tradition.”

It’s a school that for decades has paraded its homecoming king and queen down Avenida Del Mar and where members of the thriving surf team often arrive in class wet from morning practice. Now, Capistrano Beach parents fear the new boundaries will create fissures in their neighborhood as students are divided between two high schools after growing up together.

“When you move into a community, you buy into a lifestyle,” said parent Amy Hanacek. “We are a beach community. Our children grow up together. They would literally be fish out of water ... if they were forced to move.”

Several Capistrano Beach parents said they would prefer to keep their children at overcrowded San Clemente High than move them to San Juan Hills, which will have six academic buildings, a vast sports complex and a 550-seat, professional-caliber theater anchoring a performing arts center.

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Parents and real estate agents in Ladera Ranch -- a development of 5,000 homes that accounts for a significant part of the district’s growth -- voiced similar objections to the new boundaries. A group concerned about the plan to split Ladera children between San Juan Hills and Tesoro High School in Las Flores sent mailers to families to rally support for an alternative plan that would have kept all Ladera students at one school.

With district projections that more than a third of students at San Juan Hills would be Latino, a website the group posted warned parents that “the high ethnic ratios would ensure a larger percentage of children from San Juan Capistrano who are at risk of failure and who do not perform well on standardized testing would attend” the new school.

It was a scenario, the parent group wrote, that would harm students’ chances of college admission and drag down property values in the development, where the cheapest condominiums cost $400,000 and houses run as high as $1.8 million.

Parents pointed to Capistrano Valley High School, which serves most of the Latino students in San Juan Capistrano. After years of steady improvement, Capistrano Valley’s average test scores suddenly dropped three years ago when a previous change in boundaries sent hundreds of relatively wealthy non-Latino students to another school.

Regardless, Emma Barrera, a mother of five who came to San Juan Capistrano from Mexico with her family in 1998, bristles about her children being shunned.

“It is sad, the attitude of some of the parents that they do not accept that their children will have ties to our kids,” Barrera said. “I understand that parents want to create a special community for their children and that they are concerned for them. But we have to think about teaching our kids flexibility, because it is the real world.”

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Education officials in other California school districts facing rapid growth -- especially throughout Riverside and San Bernardino counties -- said Capistrano was hardly alone in dealing with the cultural and class friction that arises with the opening of new schools.

“No one came right out and said it, but [race and class] was the undercurrent,” said Julie Gobin, a spokeswoman for the Chino Valley Unified School District, which has dealt with demographic changes at new schools in recent years. “We knew there would be a shift in ethnicity at some schools, but we were clear that there was no way around it. You just have to expand with the room you have. No matter what you do, changing boundaries is always going to leave some people unhappy.”

The tension has been exacerbated as a bubble of students has reached high school age, state education officials said. The swell of students has played a large part in redrawing boundaries as nearly 200 public high schools have been built in the last five years.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which plans to open 31 schools next year, boundary problems haven’t generated much controversy, officials say, largely because most of the new campuses are in areas of extreme crowding where schools are desperately needed.

But even in districts where recent boundary changes have caused tumult, school officials say, parents and students typically adjust. In Elk Grove, for example, fears of a mass exodus by wealthy families to private schools or other districts didn’t materialize.

“Once parents accept that their kid is going to another school, then that school becomes wonderful,” said Bauer, the Elk Grove official. “It’s an ownership issue.”

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Fleming anticipates a similar resolution in Capistrano Unified.

“I would hope that people will be able to come together and be pioneers in creating something new,” he said. “People resist change. They’re concerned with the unknown.”

Not everyone is so sanguine. Some Capistrano parents have vowed to keep fighting the new boundaries and say they’re uncertain whether they will send their children to San Juan Hills.

“I don’t know a single parent that isn’t looking at other options if they force us to go to that school -- either moving or a private school,” said Pam Marshak, a Capistrano Beach resident whose daughter is slated to attend the new high school. “We will do what is best for our kids, and going there is not best for them.”

Times staff writer Susana Enriquez contributed to this report.

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