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December 28, 1990|JANICE L. JONES

For many long-term residents of Orange County, a drive through central El Toro brings back many fond memories of family outings and picnics in the nearby Cleveland National Forest.

"It was the place we stopped for cold drinks and candy before heading up to Modjeska Canyon on Sunday afternoons," said Sharon Rhodes, who recently moved to El Toro from Garden Grove. "That was in the '50s."

The neighborhood was very rural then; not many people lived here. But that's hardly the case now. In fact, this area has been the center of some of Orange County's most ferocious growth during the last 10 years. Since 1980, there has been a 166% increase in the population and an almost 200% growth in the number of households. It's hard to believe that as recently as 1970, fewer than a thousand people lived here.

Despite the growth and construction of several large housing and condominium developments throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, the neighborhood has not completely lost its country atmosphere. Greenbelts shaded by eucalyptus trees wind throughout, providing pathways and trails between the houses. Many of the residences look like mountain cabins and are bordered by wood and stone fences. The area is rustic, with a touch of elegance.

El Toro High School is located here, along with Serrano Intermediate and two elementary schools. In the mornings and afternoons, the streets and sidewalks are crowded with cars and children walking, skating and cycling home from school.

Barbara Smith, principal of Serrano Intermediate, said the wooded area surrounding the school gives it a secluded, quiet atmosphere conducive to learning. "The kids are very active, of course, but the surroundings here are very pleasant."

Serrano Intermediate was recently awarded a $40,000 California Technology Grant, which was used to install laser discs and computers in the science classrooms. "We are participating in a statewide program designed to reduce the dropout rate. So we decided to make our teaching methods more active, trying new ways to engage the students instead of having them just sit and listen," she said. "We've even started on a robotics program."

Every year, the school receives more and more students of various ethnicities who need help learning English. "We videotape the child speaking in his native language, and later on we tape them speaking English. It's very encouraging for new students to see how others have progressed," she said.

There are two parks in Central El Toro: Ranchwood Park, which has a playground designed for toddlers, and Lake Forest Park, which includes a small wilderness area.

El Toro is an unincorporated area that receives services from the county. But efforts to incorporate are under way, and early next year this neighborhood could become the center of Orange County's newest city. Population Total: (1990 est.) 21,808 1980-90 change: +166.4% Median Age: 32.6

Racial/ethnic mix: White (non-Latino): 85% Latino: 6% Black: 1% Other: 8%

By sex and age: MALES Median age: 32.0 years FEMALES Median age: 33.1 years

Income Per capita: $17,856 Median household: $52,081 Average household: $53,740

Income Distribution: Less than $25,000: 14% $25,000-49,999: 34% $50,000-74,999: 33% $75,000-$99,999: 11% $100,000 and more: 8%

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