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Aging Downtown Schools Bus Pupils Away as Overflow Exceeds Enrollment

September 18, 1988|MICHELE FUETSCH | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Early every weekday morning 2,022 youngsters arrive at the Thomas A. Edison School, a knot of aging beige buildings surrounded by cement playgrounds that butt up against two freeway ramps.

Fewer than 800 of the youngsters stay at Edison, an elementary school lying on the edge of downtown, just north of the city's new World Trade Center. The remaining 1,222 children scramble aboard buses bound for other schools outside their neighborhood because there is no room at Edison.

The story is the same at other downtown elementarys: The overflow, as school officials call it, is bigger than the enrollment. Abraham Lincoln School on east 11th Street, for example, has room for less than a third of the 2,552 students in its attendance area.

Years after the baby boomers have finished college and housing developers have moved on in search of vacant land, the Long Beach Unified School District is staggering under a 20% jump in enrollment over the past 10 years. New immigrant and minority families have streamed into the area, swelling school rolls and straining the ability of the state's third-largest district to find classroom space.

"If you want to see something sad," said Linda Martinez, the counselor at Edison, "we have 256 kindergartners and we have a postage stamp of a playground."

To reach a restroom, Edison kindergartners must leave their building and walk to another. On the first day of school last week, 67 children of varying ages were seated in the school library because there was no available classroom space.

By Thursday morning Martinez had found room for 33 of the youngsters in some of the other schools throughout the district. It will take a week to place the rest, she said, but that is considered a vast improvement over past years.

"I remember two years ago," teacher Kristin Nielsen said, "they were in the library for a month until they found spots for them."

Total enrollment in the district, which hit a low of 55,600 in 1979, is expected to reach 67,000 this year and climb as high as 78,000 before it begins to slowly taper off around the year 2000.

Births in the district, which also serves Lakewood, Signal Hill and Santa Catalina Island, numbered 11,095 last year. The year before, there were only 8,748, said Richard G. Van Der Laan, the district's public information officer.

"It assures us that our projections of a 1,000-or-more-increase in enrollment each year is going to hold true for the foreseeable future," Van Der Laan said.

Three separate studies have been conducted on how to meet the overcrowding crisis. A blue ribbon committee set up by the school district issued its recommendations in February. Another study was done by an architectural consultant that the district hired. And last month, a series of recommendations was issued by a joint district-city task force.

In all three cases, School Supt. E. Tom Giugni said, the recommendations were similar--go to four-year high schools and year-round elementary schools, continue to make frequent use of portable classrooms, buy more land around senior high schools and build new schools.

Building new schools, though, is not easy in highly developed cities that have little or no vacant land. The state recommends that high schools be built on sites of 40 to 50 acres.

"Where are we going to get 40 to 50 acres?" Giugni said. "We'd be looking for the next 10 years. That's why we chose to expand the present schools."

Even that route, though, has roadblocks. The only land adjacent to Jordan High School is occupied by a gasoline station that turns out to be one of the most profitable in the state for its parent company, making the cost of acquisition prohibitive.

Even vacant sites present obstacles. The district is ready to build a new elementary on the site of an old private school in Signal Hill. But the city of Signal Hill went to court trying to stop the district because officials want a development that will generate tax revenue. (Signal Hill lost its suit but has filed an appeal.)

Developers Consumed Land

In Long Beach, the city's drive for downtown redevelopment took up much of the land that might have been used for new schools.

"I don't think you can fault the cities (for the overcrowding)," Giugni said, "but I think the solutions are not completely in the control of the school districts. The solutions have to be reached jointly with the city and the private sector."

The city has agreed to lease the old downtown Sears store site to the school district for $1 a year. A school composed of portable classrooms will open there in January.

Overcrowding problems are aggravated by other factors, too.

Giugni points out that the older urban cities where school overcrowding exists have older school buildings. The state has money available to renovate schools that are 30 years or older and 67 of Long Beach's schools qualify for the program, he said.

Closed for Remodeling

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