SAN YSIDRO — John Gugerty stands in his office and watches the future of education in the South Bay take shape outside his window.
Four hundred apartments--row upon row, cluster upon cluster of densely packed housing--have sprouted across the street from San Ysidro's Willow Elementary School, where Gugerty is principal, in the last 18 months. Soon, 482 more will be completed in the surrounding neighborhood.
Where there are apartments, there are inevitably children.
For every 10 units occupied, Gugerty can expect seven new arrivals to his spacious, well-kept school just a spitball's throw from the Mexican border. Willow, home to 350 students this year, could be asked to take in 550 to 750 children in September--a staggering 114% enrollment increase if Gugerty's worst fears are realized.
"A good bit of the damage is done," Gugerty said ruefully a few weeks ago. "We have this housing, and it's not going to go away."
Across the South Bay, the leaders of the region's five school districts are telling themselves much the same thing as they prepare for an onslaught of children from massive developments such as EastLake in Chula Vista and multiunit apartment complexes that are blooming in National City, Imperial Beach and San Ysidro.
"I can't tell from one week to the next how many kids we're going to have," said Gary Smith, superintendent of the National School District in National City.
"There's no way to come up with an approximation. I just go along waiting to see who's coming through the door."
The county Office of Education offers what it calls a conservative estimate that the South Bay student population, which numbers 54,568 this year, will reach 80,000 by 2000--the largest increase of any of the 13 "subregional areas" that the office tracks. District superintendents believe the count could go higher.
The South Bay's 47% student growth rate puts it behind rapidly developing North County districts but ahead of San Diego Unified and other parts of the county.
But if bodies--and where to put them--were the sole concern of the five school districts between San Diego and the border, the task of educating the children of the South Bay would be far simpler than it really is.
Unfortunately, many of the children expected to tax the region's schools will also bring with them a range of problems that pose far larger challenges to teachers and administrators. Rooted largely in the socioeconomic status of the South Bay's sizable minority population, those problems include unrelenting student mobility, an alarming dropout rate, large numbers of non-English-speaking students and poverty--factors that spell trouble for schools.
More than half of the National School District's students entered a district school sometime after September or left before June, a mobility rate of 55.8%. One San Ysidro school, Sunset Elementary, showed an 89.1% mobility rate last year.
Even the Sweetwater Union High School District, which includes students from stable, affluent sections of Chula Vista, showed a 25% mobility rate last year. The rate has increased every year for the last few years.
"This is like running a school in a Greyhound Bus station," Al Goyocochea, principal of Sweetwater High School, said recently. "Since the start of school, we've enrolled 600 new kids. And these are not kids from our feeder schools."
"They're good learners if they're here," said Rosemarie Gray, a teacher at Sunset Elementary. "If they don't stay or they move in and out, you don't have a chance with them."
The South Bay's location as a convenient first stop for thousands of Mexican immigrants on the road north is the main cause of the maddening student procession through the public schools. In National City, the large number of military families also contributes. Poverty, which keeps families on the move searching for jobs and better housing, also plays a part.
"They're the ones who come to look for a new rainbow," said Gloria Sampson, assistant principal at Southwest High School. "Education is whipped cream and cherries. Survival first."
Such families send the school children like David, a fifth-grader at Willow School who attended four schools in three school districts between April, 1985, and February, 1986.
"He's going to have some problems, it would seem," Gugerty said. "He's going to be missing some key things in the fourth grade, such as reading and mathematics.
"He's always going to be in a state of transition--learning where the bathroom is, learning the rules, learning who the schoolyard bullies are. He's always going to be the first one picked on in a new school."
Students like David and his peers run a greater risk of dropping out once they reach high school. In the Sweetwater district, the South Bay's high school district, 27% of the district's 25,000 students drop out of school every year, approximately the same as the state dropout rate.