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L.A. School Enrollment Takes a Dip

The unexpected drop of 2,000 students from last year's peak could result in the loss of millions in state funds and transfer of dozens of teachers.

October 18, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa, Duke Helfand and Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writers

After a decade of explosive student enrollment growth, the Los Angeles Unified School District experienced an unanticipated drop this year because of high housing costs, the sluggish economy and declining birthrates, officials said Friday.

The dip of more than 2,000 students from last year's peak of nearly 730,000 could mean the loss of $46 million in state funding and the reassignment of dozens of teachers.

The lower-than-expected figures reflect an enrollment decline in kindergarten through third grades in Los Angeles and other California districts, as well as in several of the nation's largest school systems, including Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia. The previous demographic bulge, the offspring of baby boomers, are now in high school or are older, experts say.

Despite the loss of students, Los Angeles school officials said they intend to push ahead aggressively to build 120 schools over the next five to seven years. Those are still badly needed, they said, to get students off long bus rides from densely populated neighborhoods to schools with space, and to return campuses with multiple-track, year-round calendars to the traditional September-to-June schedule.

The district, the second-largest in the nation, is preparing to ask voters in March to approve a $3.8-billion bond for the next round of school construction work.

"We are still terribly overcrowded," said Supt. Roy Romer, who added that it was too soon to declare an end to the district's rapid growth. "We believe that this drop needs further information to determine whether [it] is a permanent, long-term trend or whether it's an economic circumstance that is a blip and will change in a year or two back to normal."

Original projections showed the district's enrollment growing by about 9,000 students this year.

L.A. Unified spokeswoman Stephanie Brady said the district had expected a more modest drop in elementary school enrollment, and for that to be offset by growth in middle school and high school numbers.

Brady said she thinks the economic decline turned out to have a greater impact than anticipated, driving more families with children out of town.

The student numbers released Friday were not broken down by campus or neighborhood; those details are expected later this month. The districtwide figures also did not include students from so-called independent charter schools that are in the district's territory but operate outside of district authority.

The potential loss of $46 million comes as a jolt for L.A. Unified, which already has slashed nearly $1 billion over the last 18 months.

"We already know it's going to be a very difficult financial year. This is more bad news," said Jose Huizar, president of the Board of Education. "I'm very concerned about where we will find additional money to continue operating."

The district, which receives about $4,700 from the state for each student, hopes to offset about $20 million of the shortfall by leaving unfilled about 125 vacancies and reassigning 175 teachers -- primarily at the elementary school level -- to campuses in need of extra instructors. Officials said they did not know yet how they would handle the rest of the shortfall.

Kittridge Elementary School in Van Nuys already is grappling with the fallout of having fewer students: The school's enrollment of about 1,300 dropped by a few dozen students this year compared with last year.

Principal Marlene Breitenbach said one teacher already has been moved to another school, and classes have been reorganized to pick up the slack.

"Fortunately, we were able to absorb most of the students without changing the schedule dramatically," she said.

In another example, Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles saw 16 teachers reassigned to other schools in the district this fall because of the enrollment decline, according to district documents. Campus officials did not return phone calls to comment about the change.

L.A. Unified's declining enrollment may have come as a surprise to district officials, but not to demographers.

Experts who study population trends say they had long forecast a decline in elementary school enrollment in California and nationally, based on the fact that birthrates have been dropping for the last decade.

Demographers say that aging baby boomers, who were born from 1946 to 1964, have largely moved out of child-bearing years. Their children produced a "boomlet" of births in the 1980s, peaking in 1990.

Experts also said that women in child-bearing years are choosing to have fewer babies, and that teenage birthrates have fallen for 12 consecutive years -- registering a one-third drop in California.

In another trend particularly relevant to California, foreign-born Latino women here have reduced their average number of children from 4.4 in 1991 to 3.2 in 1998, said Hans Johnson of the Public Policy Institute of California.

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