In the fast-growing suburbs of Southern California, where few things matter more to parents than their schools, the lines that separate attendance areas often double as boundaries of class and culture, race and ethnicity.
District administrators tinker with them at their peril.
Consider the case of the Capistrano Unified School District, in south Orange County, where some parents are angrily protesting the coming transfer of their children to a gleaming new $67-million high school.
Capistrano parents and students lament the breaking of personal bonds and family traditions that can come with changing schools. They worry about trading a high-achieving school for one with no track record.
"It's a different place -- a whole different element out there," said Catrina Crawford, who fought the plan to send her children to the new school, which will draw from disparate neighborhoods in the sprawling district, including less affluent, primarily Latino areas.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
School boundaries -- An article in Monday's Section A on school attendance boundaries quoted Amy Hanacek, a mother from Capistrano Beach, as saying, "When you move into a community, you buy into a lifestyle." It should have read, "When you move into a community, you embrace a lifestyle."
"It's like we're sending our kids to another state. They're going to go to school with kids from families we don't know -- a lot of them will be from lower-income and single-parent homes."
"We're not rancheros," agreed another mother, Vickie Patterson, using the Spanish word for rancher.
Capistrano Unified, in which poorer Latino immigrant neighborhoods are surrounded by more affluent beach communities and housing developments, illustrates how growth has forced school districts to navigate greater ethnic and economic diversity in the hallways of newly built schools, educators say.
"Changing boundaries are one of the hardest things schools have to deal with," said Samantha Bauer, a spokeswoman for the Elk Grove Unified School District, near Sacramento, where 24 proposed schools would reshuffle the demographics of the district.
"Parents talk about losing academic programs and test scores, but what they're really saying is 'Leave my neighborhood alone. Don't make us mix.' "
In Chino Hills, middle-class parents balked last year at new boundaries that would send their children to a new elementary school in a poor minority neighborhood. In Fontana, where student enrollment is expected to swell 15% in the next five years, officials say they are braced for opposition to plans for moving students from entrenched neighborhoods.
Last month, trustees for the 50,000-student Capistrano Unified district approved changes in attendance boundaries to apportion more than 14,000 high school students among five existing campuses and the new San Juan Hills High School. The move will affect thousands of students entering high school when the new campus opens in 2006 at the eastern end of San Juan Capistrano.
The vote came after months of stormy debate, angry phone calls and e-mails to school officials and lobbying by local politicians. In March, on a day students were to take state assessment tests, parents in one neighborhood kept their children home to protest Supt. James A. Fleming's recommendation to the trustees. Nearly 1,000 people attended a subsequent hearing on the new boundaries, at which more than 140 people pleaded their case before the school board.
After the board voted, parents in one gated community began the lengthy legal process to secede from the district. Another group of parents say they will announce at a district meeting tonight that they intend to launch a campaign to recall the trustees, in part because of their vote on the boundaries.
"This has been one hell of an experience," Capistrano Trustee John Casabianca told parents. "We have taken a lot of heat, and our communities are being pulled apart and divided."
The new boundaries will bring students from distinct communities together at the new high school. About a third of the 2,200 students at San Juan Hills High will be from Latino families, many of them immigrants and English learners living in low-income apartments. To achieve a balance and fill the school to capacity, Fleming will pull in students from Capistrano Beach and Ladera Ranch, two wealthier neighborhoods in surrounding cities.
Perhaps most angered by the plan were scores of parents in Capistrano Beach, a neighborhood perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean. After more than three decades within the attendance boundary of nearby San Clemente High School, the community will eventually send about 400 teenagers about 10 miles inland to San Juan Hills High when it opens, under the district's plan.
San Clemente High has been a focal point in the tightknit community, fostering an allegiance that spans generations.
"My mother went to San Clemente, my brothers and I went, and we think our children should go," Crawford said. "There is something to be said for tradition."