Public school enrollment is dropping fast in some of the most notoriously crowded neighborhoods of Los Angeles as soaring rents and property values displace low-income, mostly immigrant families.
"It's getting too expensive to live here. I hear that from parents all the time," clerk Mina Rocha said recently from her post at the front counter of Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Pico-Union, in the crook of the 10 and 110 freeways.
The school opened this year with 1,652 students, about 500 fewer than in 2002. Next year's student body will be smaller still. "We've lost a lot of kids, and not a lot are enrolling," Rocha said.
It's a story repeated at dozens of schools in the central city and the southeast San Fernando Valley, in neighborhoods long characterized by poverty and overcrowding and now changing rapidly.
School enrollment figures offer an early glimpse of demographic trends that won't show up in census data for several years. A Los Angeles Times analysis of those numbers, grouped by ZIP Codes, found an unmistakable pattern: Families with children are leaving the city's core.
Overall, kindergarten through fifth-grade enrollment in the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District dropped only modestly -- by about 30,000, or less than 10% -- since the fall of 2002. But half of that loss came from just 15 of the 118 ZIP Codes the district covers, all in neighborhoods once dominated by working-class immigrants.
The families began leaving a few years ago, as property values and rents soared. School administrators and housing advocates said residents of the restored homes or new luxury condominiums tend to have fewer or no children.
"Our ZIP Code is one of the last areas to get a big boost in the real estate market," said Jim Kennedy, principal of Pico-Union's Magnolia Elementary, which is losing about 75 students a year. "It's been a shock to the families."
The 90006 ZIP Code covers two square miles and five elementary schools, including Magnolia and Hobart. In the last two years, average rents there jumped by 60%, to $932 a month, according to RealFacts, a Novato-based real estate research firm. During the same two years, the combined elementary school enrollment dropped by 800 to 5,284.
A similar pattern of rising rents and declining school enrollment shows up in Westlake, Echo Park, Boyle Heights, South Los Angeles and pockets of the San Fernando Valley, including Pacoima and North Hollywood. It is the mirror image of what happened in the same neighborhoods a generation ago.
Populations swelled in the 1980s and 1990s as newly arrived immigrants squeezed into homes and apartments, sometimes one family to each bedroom. To absorb the influx of children, schools added portable classrooms, switched to staggered schedules so that schools could operate year round and resorted to busing some students to distant campuses.
Now, armed with $11.7 billion in voter-approved bond money, the district is addressing the long-standing problem by building 150 schools, including 65 for elementary grades. The schools are concentrated in the neighborhoods once most affected by population growth, the same neighborhoods now losing children in large numbers. The construction, which is expected to run through 2012, began in 2001, just as gentrification began.
"We've been surprised a little bit by the depth of the declines," acknowledged Edwin Van Ginkel, the district's senior development manager. "But it's not happening at such a pace that we believe it's going to affect our planning."
He noted that even after several years of enrollment declines, the neighborhoods losing students remain densely populated and still have the largest elementary enrollments in the district. "We've got 1,400 kids in schools built for half that number. If there's gentrification that allows that school to go down to 1,000 kids, it may not be such a bad thing," he said.
The district's construction program has played a part in the decline by leveling apartment buildings and homes at building sites. The first construction phase displaced 1,500 households. A second phase may do the same.
But the school system's role is minor compared to that of the private sector. Would-be homeowners and investors priced out of other Los Angeles markets have been buying and fixing up properties in these long-undervalued neighborhoods, many of which offer views of downtown and pockets of charming architecture. Old apartment buildings often are rehabbed for a more upscale market or demolished to make way for new construction.
Citywide, at least 7,000 rent-controlled units have been lost to demolition and condo conversion since the start of 2005, according to records kept by the Housing Department based on self-reporting by building owners. Housing advocates say the actual number of affordable units lost is far higher.