Orange County public schools report a sudden surge in enrollments of primary grade students transferring from private schools, a trend administrators ascribe to this year's state class-size reduction program.
Harbour View Elementary in Huntington Beach gained an unprecedented 40 private school transfers--more than tripling last year's 13, and five times as many as the eight students in 1994.
"That's the biggest increase in the district's history," said Harbour View Principal Roni Burns-Ellis. "We anticipated that we would get more private students . . . but we didn't realize it would be that many."
One of the parents who made the switch was Anita Thomas, who took her daughter Katie, a second-grader, out of a Catholic school and enrolled her in Harbour View.
"It was hard for us to make the decision," Thomas said. "Katie's first communion is this year. . . . We considered taking her to another private school. But once the stories were coming out about reduced class sizes in a school two miles from our house, I thought, 'This is wonderful.' "
Parents' newfound willingness to test the public schools is a hopeful sign for an oft-maligned system, which often deals with limited resources, government cutbacks and overcrowding.
That willingness is largely the result of a new law allocating $971 million to help schools pare class sizes to a maximum 20 pupils in kindergarten through third grade. Educators heralded the legislation, adopted earlier this year, as a significant step toward raising reading and math scores.
It has already become a significant step toward more parents seeing public education as a viable alternative.
"It's neat to see education get a positive report," said Burns-Ellis, a teacher and principal for 12 years. "We have not been given credit for turning out a great product. Now, everyone is looking at us with great hopes."
Private school administrators say their classrooms are not emptying, though they have received reports of transfers attributed to the public schools' class-size reduction program.
More than half of Orange County's 43 Catholic campuses, which account for the bulk of private schools, still have extensive waiting lists of students. And with parents choosing private schools for more varied reasons than just class size, administrators at those schools say they are not worried just yet.
"In a couple of areas in the county, I've heard from principals that some students have left our schools for [smaller public classes] but not very many because we're still up by 2% to 5% in enrollments this year," said Brother William Carriere, schools superintendent for the Orange Diocese. "There's no clear indication that there will be an exodus of students because of this new law."
Most Catholic schools average 30 students a class, or up to 35 pupils if the teacher has an aide, Carriere said.
Despite those numbers, he said, "our students still score high on the national and standardized tests."
Dana Point Christian school administrator JoAnne Huston said that she was not aware of any of her students leaving for public schools, but that the smaller public school class sizes had lured away prospective students.
Some parents called Huston earlier this year asking whether her school would cut class sizes. She told them that the school cannot afford classes smaller than its typical 25-student size. Those parents never called back, she said.
"This is the first year in quite a while that we have not had full classes, and there are no waiting lists," Huston said.
The influx of transfers from private to public schools is apparent in several pockets of Orange County.
Administrators across the county have found that this year's enrollments in primary grades far exceeded their projections--particularly in first grade. All but one of Orange County's 23 school districts plan to lower class sizes in at least first grade, and many have already carried out the reduction.
At Moulton Elementary in Laguna Niguel, 21 former private school students enrolled this year, compared to the typical two or three transfers.
Capistrano Unified gained 518 more students than projected, and 407 of them came from private schools.
At Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified, almost 200 more first-graders entered its schools, a far cry from the usual growth of 20 pupils.
Changing demographic patterns account for some of the increase, but some administrators are convinced the class-size reduction has played a big role.
"We don't usually have this tremendous change," said Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified Assistant Supt. Tim VanEck. "We do believe the smaller classes are attracting growth."
For parents like Harbour View's Thomas, bloated classes at her daughter's old school were a major concern.
Forced to compete with 37 students for her teacher's attention, her daughter Katie had trouble with reading assignments throughout kindergarten and first grade.