INGLEWOOD — While most South Bay districts are closing schools because of declining enrollment, Inglewood Unified School District officials are searching for space to accommodate a student population that is expected to increase by 15% in the next two years.
"This is the biggest crisis this school board has seen," Inglewood Supt. Rex Fortune said.
Overcrowding in 7 of the district's 14 elementary schools forced the board to open an emergency school this week in a church Sunday school annex--a stark contrast to neighboring districts such as Wiseburn in Hawthorne where, in the past three years, as many elementary schools have closed as remain open.
The so-called Community School for kindergarten and first grade students will officially start classes Friday, drawing students from Beulah Payne, William H. Kelso, W. Claude Hudnall and Oak Street elementary schools. The four schools, all operating at more than 100% of capacity, are among the most crowded in Inglewood.
At Hudnall, portable classrooms occupy a portion of the playground where children once skipped across hopscotch grids and played four square. Inside, lunch time is spread over three periods instead of two. With only two lunch periods, some children had to sit on the floor to eat.
At Kelso Elementary, portable classrooms eased only some of the overcrowded conditions. This fall's enrollment hit an all-time high, prompting school administrators to use both the auditorium and lunchroom for classroom space.
"It's simple. We have more children than we can handle," Fortune said.
The district's enrollment figures have increased by 15% over the past three years, and new housing developments in Inglewood and adjacent Ladera Heights promise to match that increase in the next two years.
"For the past five years we've been talking about options to offset increasing enrollment, but we never passed a solid plan," Fortune said "Then, suddenly it all exploded."
Despite efforts to reduce overcrowding, class sizes in almost all of the district's 19 schools exceed the state standard of 30 students per elementary class and 26 students per secondary class, Fortune said.
The state Board of Education recently fined the district $150,000 for overcrowding. Such fines are normally withheld from state funding. At the district's request, the state agreed to delay imposing the fine for at least a year while the district tries to reduce class sizes.
School board members hope the CommunitySchool's small classes, new equipment and a free child-care facility--a service not previously offered in Inglewood schools--will persuade parents to transfer their children voluntarily to the new school, which is next to the Church of God Pentecostal Inc. building at 109 Buckthorn Ave.
If not, the district will assign children to the new school, with those who enrolled last placed first in line for transfers. The district sent letters about the new school to all parents whose children attend Payne, Kelso, Hudnall and Oak Street schools.
The Community School will open with only a sprinkling of students transferred by their parents, Fortune said. Officials plan to build enrollment with assigned transfers over the next few months.
"We are trying to be fair about this whole thing," school board Vice President Ernest Shaw said. "We don't have a choice. We have to act fast. This seems like the easiest and fairest way to divide up the students."
The school board has agreed to allow children who live more than 12 blocks from the new school to remain at their current campuses. The district provides transportation only for special education students, and currently has no plan to provide transportation for Community School students.
More May Be Needed
The Community School is considered a temporary measure, Shaw said. But if the district's growth pattern continues, as its studies indicate, then the board may have to open more temporary schools, he said.
According to a board-commissioned study, rapid development, combined with a growing Latino population with a birth rate nearly twice that of other ethnic groups in the city, will continue to fuel the student population explosion.
The enrollment growth is most evident in the elementary schools, where almost 750 new students enrolled this year, compared to 363 new students the previous year.
Opponents of the Community School, including some parents, teachers and school board member Tony Draper, say the school board moved too fast in opening it. In less than six weeks the former Sunday school annex was transformed into a labyrinth of tiny classrooms.
"We have seen this coming for years," Draper said. "We should have realistically considered this option when we still had a manageable student population, instead of after the fact. I'm not saying we should drag our heels, but we need to plan these things ahead of time."