Questions rise as enrollment falls

South Coast freeways are more crowded than ever, but there are fewer bikes in the cul-de-sacs and not as many strollers being pushed toward neighborhood parks.

What’s more, skyrocketing home prices are squeezing out middle-class families and bringing in seniors and upper-income families who tend to have fewer children.

In the 1998-99 school year, the Santa Barbara Elementary School District had 6,201 students. This year there are 5,876 students enrolled, with the numbers projected to fall to 5,770 this autumn. Declining enrollment is expected to hit the junior high schools this fall for the first time since 1996 and spiral into the high schools just two years later.

Why is this a problem? While research backs the common-sense notion that smaller learning environments help boost student achievement, fewer students mean fewer dollars for schools that are already strapped for cash. Fewer students also mean fewer parents who are available and willing to pony up the volunteer hours and fund-raising dollars to help fill in that gap.

In an effort to deal with some of these challenges and make optimal use of the facilities and resources available to the schools, the Santa Barbara School Districts has hired local consultant Pat Saley to assist with updating the Facilities Master Plan, which was last completed in 2003. As part of the initiative, the district will request input from the community about the “big-picture” issues that affect the schools.

In addition to changing demographics and enrollment trends, this includes the possibility of designating additional space for pre-school programs, as well as permanent facility needs for the K-8 Open Alternative School, currently housed at La Colina Junior High; the K-8 Santa Barbara Charter School, currently housed at Goleta Valley Junior High; and the K-6 Santa Barbara Community Academy, currently housed at the downtown district office and at Santa Barbara Junior High, and soon to have some students housed at La Cumbre Junior High.

Also under discussion are what to do with excess space in schools, plans for the two properties the districts own — in Hidden Valley and near San Marcos High — that were once designated for new schools, how new projects should be funded, whether the districts should continue to allow student transfers, and if, hypothetically, an elementary school were to be closed or relocated, how that should be handled.

“We’re asking for input on how to best use our facilities and properties,” Superintendent Brian Sarvis said last week. “None of these decisions have been made … this is the beginning of that process.”

“The idea is to figure out our priorities,” said Saley, who emphasized that the meetings weren’t focusing on individual schools needs yet.

Saley said about 50 people attended the first three community meetings and that she will present a summary of their input to the school board June 14 or June 28.

Santa Barbara School Districts consultant Pat Saley can be contacted at 969.4605 or with any comments or questions.

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on June 2, 2005.

Schools offer preliminary headcounts

With the high cost of housing driving declining school enrollment figures throughout the state, there were a few bright spots in the preliminary local students counts.

Bishop Garcia Diego High School was reportedly up to approximately 270 students this week. In January, the Catholic school announced that it was severing relations with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in order to have more local control. At that time a board of directors was formed and the school began actively marketing to the community, a move that resulted in additional students for the fall.

As of Monday, the Hope School District had 1,415 students enrolled, said Superintendent Les Imel. This is approximately 20 fewer students than the district had budgeted for, but still more than the 2003-2004 year end count of 1,371. Imel stressed that those numbers — of which approximately 30 percent are inter-district transfer students — were not final.

Vieja Valley, for example, took in four new students (not included in the 1,415) that day, said Principal Barbara LaCorte.

Getting a handle on enrollment figures is particularly critical in these times of uncertain state funding, but administrators all stressed that the numbers were still fluctuating.

The Santa Barbara Elementary School District had a very preliminary count of 5,386 students, versus a projected 5,585 students, while the secondary district was over its initial projection of 9,474, with a preliminary headcount of 9,762.

The Goleta Union School District had 3,773 students on the first day, but again, emphasized the count was still preliminary.

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on September 16, 2004.