PALOS VERDES ESTATES — Margate Intermediate School will graduate its 23rd--and last--class this afternoon.
Most likely the weather will be warm and sunny. It usually is in this favored neighborhood near the cliffs overlooking Lunada Bay.
The narrow streets wind past Spanish-style homes partly hidden by trees and lush greenery. Peacocks stroll across the carefully tended grounds, their plaintive cries momentarily breaking the stillness. Long white limousines wait in the driveways of several homes.
Margate officials expect a large turnout at the graduation ceremonies, which will be held on the softball field behind the red-tiled campus buildings. Parents have always taken great pride in their neighborhood school, the officials say, and Margate's traditions are strongly supported by the foreign-born residents who have moved into the area in recent years.
But affluence and neighborhood pride have not spared Margate from the inexorable calculus of declining enrollment that has led to the closure of dozens of schools across the South Bay in the past decade.
The Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District closed five of its 13 elementary campuses as enrollment dropped by 40% from the peak years in the early 1970s, when new schools could not be built fast enough to house the children of families settling on the hill.
Last year, as a dwindling number of younger children reached the middle school years, the school board selected Margate, one of four intermediate schools, for the next closure. The move has been bitterly opposed by some Margate residents, who have vowed to overturn the board's decision through legal and political action.
Dwindling enrollment, accompanied by losses in state financial aid, has been attributed to lower birth rates and escalating property values that keep out many younger families with school-age children.
The district now has 10,600 students and officials believe enrollment will stabilize at about that level in the next few years.
"We've tried to make Margate's last year very special," said Principal Gerald Evans. "Everyone has wanted to savor the beautiful experiences we've had here, and there has been an extra effort on the part of the parents and staff to make these last events especially memorable."
Earlier this week, Evans presided over Margate's final student assembly in the school's auditorium. He handed out awards to outstanding achievers and all of the students received a certificate noting that they had attended Margate's last year.
"If it is to be, it's up to me," the certificate concludes.
At the ceremonies today, the school band will play the traditional tunes and three students will give farewell speeches on behalf of the graduating class. School board President Martin Dodell and Trustee Jack Bagdasar will hand out diplomas to the 222 graduates--the last of 7,650 to complete their eighth-grade education at Margate since the school opened in 1964.
In the evening, the graduates will return for a farewell dance. The boys will wear boutonnieres, the girls will be given wrist corsages. A live orchestra has been hired by the PTA.
"It will be a beautiful scene, with all the lights and decorations," Evans said. "The PTA has really worked hard."
'Girls Will Cry'
When "Auld Lang Syne" closes the dance, many of the girls will cry, Evans said. "They always do," he said. "The boys--well, they always try manfully not to cry. But everyone feels the same way. It's a bittersweet time for the kids. The end of an important phase in their growing-up years, the parting of friends."
Evans, a teacher and administrator at the school for 18 years, gets misty-eyed himself when he talks about the end of the Margate era. "There is some heartache that goes with closing a school," he said.
A farewell faculty potluck this week also inspired some tears, Evans said. Gifts were exchanged, memories of the past were shared. They talked about the uncertainties and challenges of the future and planned a reunion next year.
"We've had the privilege of working with an abundance of able and gifted youngsters," he said. "But we will have the same opportunities at our new schools. We have to look at change as something positive and inevitable."
Evans has been reassigned as principal of the Dapplegray Intermediate School, and 16 of Margate's 22 teachers will fill new slots at the Malaga Cove and Ridgecrest campuses, where Margate's students will continue their studies.
The other teachers have been offered positions at the elementary and high school levels. Margate's non-teaching employees will be given jobs at other schools on the basis of seniority and job availability.
District officials hope that early retirements and attrition will minimize the number of employees who are bumped at the bottom of the seniority ladder.