As Orange County's 28 school districts prepare to begin fall classes, a statistical blip has many administrators smiling.
The blip forecasts a slight increase in the number of Orange County students this year. If correct, it would be the second year in a row--and only the second time since 1975--that the county's student enrollment has grown.
"We won't know positively until our October census, but it appears Orange County will have at least 335,000 (elementary and high school) students enrolling this fall," said Audrey Capasso, apportionment technician for the Orange County Department of Education.
Classes About to Begin
"The county had 386,086 students in 1975, but since then the total has dropped every year until last year," Capasso said. The 1984 tally was 334,803.
Eight of Orange County's 28 districts start school this week, and the remainder begin fall classes next Monday.
As in the past, increases and declines in the county's student population are triggered by similar fluctuations in the national birth rate, officials say.
The steady growth in Orange County's schools through the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, reflected the post-World War II baby boom, according to statisticians. A lower birth rate in the late 1960s began showing up in the mid-1970s, when fewer children entered kindergarten. In recent years, however, the birth rate has again increased slightly, as baby boom children have become parents.
"Now we're seeing the echo of the baby boom," said Orange County Education Supt. Robert Peterson.
"We're starting to see growth in the kindergartens again, but it's uneven growth, and not all districts reflect it. So there will still be a loss of enrollment in some districts this year, and that will cause them (financial) problems."
State financial aid for schools is based on student enrollment.
Those districts that do experience growth soon will face a teacher shortage, Peterson said. The shortage is part of a national phenomenon that is expected to worsen over the next five years, he said.
"California won't have enough new teachers to handle the need, and the state will be forced to recruit outside, and perhaps internationally," he said. Contacts are already being made with British Columbia (in Canada), where there is a surplus of teachers.
The superintendent said Orange County schools face a myriad of other problems, including financial uncertainty, public unfamiliarity with school problems and student drug use.
Since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, a school district's only chance to raise more money for school needs is through a special tax approved by at least two-thirds of the electorate. The Irvine Unified School District tried in 1983 to pass such a tax and failed.
"The possibility of any district's being able to pass such a thing is very remote," Peterson said.
Median Age Rising
While some baby boomers now are adding to the school population, others have had to move from Orange County as housing prices have increased. The result is that the median age of Orange County's population has increased, Peterson said, leaving fewer adults with children in school, and fewer direct contacts between citizens and public schools. "A problem for schools is how they can get their messages to these people when only one adult in four (in the county) now has a child in school," said Peterson.
Peterson also said the state Legislature, which now provides the bulk of school funding, passes its budget months after school districts have had to draw up theirs, guessing at what they'll get.
The superintendent, who said last year that student drug abuse was a major problem in Orange County schools, predicted some improvement this year. But he said the problem still affects hundreds of students. "It's encouraging that so many citizen groups are now fighting the problem; we need advances on many fronts," he said.
Early Exposure to Drugs
"Most parents don't realize that their children face D-Day, as far as possible drug use is concerned, when they're only about 9 years old. That's when children can begin to get exposure to other kids with drugs and face peer pressure to join in. It's not just in high school; it starts at the upper levels of elementary school and in junior high."
Finally, Peterson said Orange County's year-round good weather and abundance of things to do are built-in distractions for students.
"In some areas of the country, it's nicer to be indoors studying, where it's warm and dry, than to be outside," said Peterson. "But not in Orange County. There are beaches and mountains, good weather and all kinds of distractions for students. It takes good motivational work by the families to keep the children interested in their education and focused on it."