Public school enrollment is dropping fast in some of the most notoriously crowded neighborhoods of Los Angeles as soaring rents and property values displace low-income, mostly immigrant families.
“It’s getting too expensive to live here. I hear that from parents all the time,” clerk Mina Rocha said recently from her post at the front counter of Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Pico-Union, in the crook of the 10 and 110 freeways.
The school opened this year with 1,652 students, about 500 fewer than in 2002. Next year’s student body will be smaller still. “We’ve lost a lot of kids, and not a lot are enrolling,” Rocha said.
It’s a story repeated at dozens of schools in the central city and the southeast San Fernando Valley, in neighborhoods long characterized by poverty and overcrowding and now changing rapidly.
School enrollment figures offer an early glimpse of demographic trends that won’t show up in census data for several years. A Los Angeles Times analysis of those numbers, grouped by ZIP Codes, found an unmistakable pattern: Families with children are leaving the city’s core.
Overall, kindergarten through fifth-grade enrollment in the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District dropped only modestly -- by about 30,000, or less than 10% -- since the fall of 2002. But half of that loss came from just 15 of the 118 ZIP Codes the district covers, all in neighborhoods once dominated by working-class immigrants.
The families began leaving a few years ago, as property values and rents soared. School administrators and housing advocates said residents of the restored homes or new luxury condominiums tend to have fewer or no children.
“Our ZIP Code is one of the last areas to get a big boost in the real estate market,” said Jim Kennedy, principal of Pico-Union’s Magnolia Elementary, which is losing about 75 students a year. “It’s been a shock to the families.”
The 90006 ZIP Code covers two square miles and five elementary schools, including Magnolia and Hobart. In the last two years, average rents there jumped by 60%, to $932 a month, according to RealFacts, a Novato-based real estate research firm. During the same two years, the combined elementary school enrollment dropped by 800 to 5,284.
A similar pattern of rising rents and declining school enrollment shows up in Westlake, Echo Park, Boyle Heights, South Los Angeles and pockets of the San Fernando Valley, including Pacoima and North Hollywood. It is the mirror image of what happened in the same neighborhoods a generation ago.
Populations swelled in the 1980s and 1990s as newly arrived immigrants squeezed into homes and apartments, sometimes one family to each bedroom. To absorb the influx of children, schools added portable classrooms, switched to staggered schedules so that schools could operate year round and resorted to busing some students to distant campuses.
Now, armed with $11.7 billion in voter-approved bond money, the district is addressing the long-standing problem by building 150 schools, including 65 for elementary grades. The schools are concentrated in the neighborhoods once most affected by population growth, the same neighborhoods now losing children in large numbers. The construction, which is expected to run through 2012, began in 2001, just as gentrification began.
“We’ve been surprised a little bit by the depth of the declines,” acknowledged Edwin Van Ginkel, the district’s senior development manager. “But it’s not happening at such a pace that we believe it’s going to affect our planning.”
He noted that even after several years of enrollment declines, the neighborhoods losing students remain densely populated and still have the largest elementary enrollments in the district. “We’ve got 1,400 kids in schools built for half that number. If there’s gentrification that allows that school to go down to 1,000 kids, it may not be such a bad thing,” he said.
The district’s construction program has played a part in the decline by leveling apartment buildings and homes at building sites. The first construction phase displaced 1,500 households. A second phase may do the same.
But the school system’s role is minor compared to that of the private sector. Would-be homeowners and investors priced out of other Los Angeles markets have been buying and fixing up properties in these long-undervalued neighborhoods, many of which offer views of downtown and pockets of charming architecture. Old apartment buildings often are rehabbed for a more upscale market or demolished to make way for new construction.
Citywide, at least 7,000 rent-controlled units have been lost to demolition and condo conversion since the start of 2005, according to records kept by the Housing Department based on self-reporting by building owners. Housing advocates say the actual number of affordable units lost is far higher.
“We’ve now decided the entire city is gentrifying, with some super-gentrification zones,” said Tai Glenn, head housing attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. “Our work used to focus on cleaning up slum conditions. Now it’s all about evictions.”
Larry Gross, director of the nonprofit Coalition for Economic Survival, which grew out of the movement for rent control in the 1970s, advocates a moratorium on conversions of rent-controlled apartments until the loss of affordable housing is addressed comprehensively. “If this is not curbed,” he said, “we’re looking at the face of Los Angeles changing forever. It’s going to be a city of the wealthy.”
For veteran Los Angeles teachers and administrators, the trend is a bracing departure from the norm. Lower enrollments bring the gift of more manageable playgrounds and even a spare room or two. But they also raise concerns for those being pushed out and for the long-term future of the schools.
“My whole career in the district, it’s been grow, grow, grow,” said Christopher Stehr, principal of Leo Politi Elementary in Pico-Union, which this year dipped below 1,000 students for the first time since 1997. The school is slated to go to a standard single-track calendar next year. “I never thought I’d be around to see this day,” he said.
Tall, robust, with graying hair, Stehr donned a suit jacket to take a walk around his school’s six-block enrollment area, a hodgepodge of boxy apartment buildings thrown up in the 1970s and ‘80s and grand Craftsman and Queen Anne homes built more than a century ago.
Multiple mailboxes and satellite antennas marked the houses converted to mini-apartment buildings. Work crews marked the ones being restored to single-family homes. Piles of abandoned furniture outside apartment buildings hinted at evictions.
Passing the large asphalt playground, where children in blue-and-white uniforms were at recess, Stehr said the population drop has made the campus more manageable. But it also means he will lose three teachers. And he worried about the families who were leaving. “Is it a good thing? That depends on why they’re leaving and where they’re ending up,” he said.
The subject hit a nerve with mothers waiting outside Leo Politi’s gates, all tenants protected by the city’s rent-control law. Adopted in 1978, the law limits annual increases to 3% a year (up to 4% after this year) as long as the tenant stays in the unit. It also limits a landlord’s ability to evict.
But the law doesn’t apply to units built after 1978, and it can’t prevent owners from taking units off the market, either to raze them or convert them to condos. In addition, housing advocates said many landlords tempted by the hot market have been illegally evicting tenants. Others are using state overcrowding laws to remove long-term tenants, sometimes arguing successfully in court that they should not be required to rent small units to families that are too large for them.
Without rent control, the mothers at Leo Politi said, they too would be gone.
“I looked around for a bigger place and it was impossible,” said Manuela Cardoza, who shares a one-bedroom apartment with three daughters and her husband, a day laborer. The family has lived in the unit five years and pays $850 a month.
The same apartment might fetch $200 more today, said Cardoza, gathering up 4-year-old Brenda for the short walk home. “They were asking $1,200 for a two-bedroom in our building,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “It’s very expensive.”
The effect on campuses has been mixed. Schools can shrink too far, said Beth Harker, assistant principal at Hollywood’s Cheremoya Elementary, where enrollment dropped from 435 students last year to 350 this year because of gentrification and school boundary changes. The school moved from three tracks to one. Even so, four classrooms sit empty.
Total enrollment could fall below 300 next year, which makes Harker a little nervous. “Small comes with its own challenges,” she said. For example, grade levels must sometimes be combined and taught by a single teacher, which Cheremoya has not yet had to do. The smaller budget also means less money for school-wide extras, like art classes.
The school’s enrollment area is large, reaching into the Hollywood Hills, but nearly all students come from a densely settled stretch of apartments and old homes south of Franklin Avenue. Some of the residences bear fresh coats of paint. One newly refurbished brick building advertises lofts for lease.
Many of those buildings once housed children who went to Cheremoya, Harker said. The school hasn’t had the resources to track where their families headed when they left. Curious, she leafed through a stack of past students’ files looking for records requests from other schools, the only sure way of knowing where a student transfers. She ticked off the names: Pacoima, Victorville, Orange County, Desert Hot Springs, Canyon Country, Riverside, Temecula, Whittier, Georgia, Florida.
More than half were open questions. “We have no idea where they’re going,” Harker said. “All we know is the numbers keep going down.”