Santa Fe Elementary School in Vista has lots of new faces this year.
A year ago, the school held the distinction of having the highest percentage of ethnic-minority enrollment in the district--nearly three out of four students, compared with a district average of about four out of 10.
Until last year, Vista elementary schools, as well as those in neighboring communities, had grown increasingly segregated every year since 1986, the earliest for which figures were available.
Today, thanks to a state-funded magnet program, fewer than half of the students at Santa Fe are children of color, about two percentage points more than the district average, and elementary schools in the district overall are more racially balanced.
While other growing North County school districts struggle to stem the tide of ethnic imbalances at their elementary schools, Vista Unified has sown the seeds of success.
This year, a $1.2-million visual and performing arts magnet program opened at Santa Fe, the oldest elementary school in the district, and the school, renamed Vista Academy, was opened to all the children in the district.
"The only way we were able to attract students outside of the Santa Fe boundary area was to develop an instructional program that was attractive enough so that people from all over the district would want to come here," said Rodney Goldenberg, principal of Vista Academy.
And come they have.
The waiting list to get into the 653-student magnet program, with its dance studio, performing arts center, instrumental rooms, drama lab and art lab, is 240 students long, Goldenberg said.
"We are giving minority students who, because of their family income, are unable to afford things like dance lessons and music lessons," Goldenberg said. "Now these student are on the same level as the other students."
While school administrators agree that integration is an important goal, they said they are at the mercy of segregated neighborhoods and limited resources.
"The best way that children of any color are prepared to assume leadership roles in the world that they are going to grow up in," said Dan Armstrong, spokesman for Oceanside Unified, "is to have them interact every day in a diverse setting that reflects the world that they are going to inherit.
"When you have a school of youngsters from a background that we generally would label high-risk, and that's the only kind of youngster in that school, you aren't providing the opportunities that they need to break out of that high-risk cycle."
Oceanside Unified's ethnic-minority student ratio has increased only slightly in the past five years, as has the degree of integration of its elementary schools, which is only slightly lower than Vista's is today.
Attempts to desegregate schools by attendance boundaries, Armstrong said, are not always greeted warmly by some parents in well-to-do neighborhoods.
"We do get some phone calls from people who tell us, 'We considered a lot of factors when we bought our home and the student makeup of the schools is not quite what we had in mind,' " Armstrong said. "They mean that there are more children of color on that campus than what they had expected to see."
Schools such as Christa McAuliffe School and Ivey Ranch School, Armstrong said, would be virtually all white were it not for contorted attendance boundaries pushing their ethnic-minority enrollments up to 33.9% and 54.7%, respectively.
Much of the problem, Armstrong and others said, stems from the school districts not having control over where schools are located.
"New school sites are going to be where new development occurs," Armstrong said. "The location of a school is practically dictated to the district by what's available in a new neighborhood."
Schools are forced to negotiate with housing developers for school sites, Armstrong said, since they are the ones holding the property. Developers want the new school to serve the families moving into the new homes, Armstrong said.
Because most families who can afford to buy new houses are white, Armstrong said, new schools in those areas tend to create an even greater imbalance in the percentage of ethnic-minority students in schools.
Vista, however, countered that trend as well because of the new magnet school. Two new elementary schools opened on the edge of town, in areas with largely non-Latino white populations--yet the district's schools overall are less segregated.
If the target is to have student ethnicity at each school reflect the overall student population, Vista in the past several years had been going in the wrong direction.
In 1986, the percentages of minority students in the elementary schools averaged 7.1% above or below the minority student population. By last year, that figure had more than doubled.
But this year, the rate dipped slightly to an average of 11.2% above or below the districtwide enrollment, the first decline since the school started keeping such records.