By Karen Billing
When the school year kicks off on Aug. 28, the Del Mar Union School District is projecting an enrollment of 4,441 students this year, a slight increase of 20 students from last year.
“We would be experiencing a decline in enrollment this year if not for about 150 students coming from new development in Torrey Hills,” said Jason Romero, assistant superintendent of human resources.
Families start moving in this week to new apartment housing at Torrey Gardens, and Romero said the district is expecting about 110 students to come from those units. Next door to Torrey Gardens on West Ocean Air Drive is the nearly complete Ocean Air Apartment Homes development, which the district projects will bring about 50 students.
Looking ahead, the district expects to steadily increase enrollment through 2021-22, thanks to Pacific Highlands Ranch developments, hitting more than 5,000 students in 2018 and 5,233 in 2021. Romero said the next three years after 2022, the district expects to plateau at around 5,000 students.
Romero said that the district realized its enrollment needs a few years ago, establishing the flexible option areas in 2012-13 to help deal with its more affected campuses. The option areas allow families that live within the boundaries to choose between two schools designated for their area. Option areas are Ocean Air-Sage Canyon; Sage Canyon-Ashley Falls; Ocean Air-Torrey Hills; Del Mar Hills-Carmel Del Mar; and Sycamore Ridge-Ashley Falls.
In 2012-13, 87 students took advantage of option areas; in 2013-14, 105 students participated; and in 2014-15, the district so far has 112 students to make an option area choice.
In the 2013-14 school year, the district entered a memorandum of understanding with the Del Mar California Teachers Association that allowed a maximum of 22 students in kindergarten through third grade, and 28 students in grades four through six. That agreement was renewed in April 2014 for the coming school year.
“Because of the MOU, we saw a savings of 10 teachers from 2012-13 to 2013-14, because it allowed us to staff properly,” Romero said.
Even though there are more students, thanks to the ability to staff “properly,” Romero said so far the district will save two teachers from 2013-14 to this year, from 186 to 184.
Class size ratios in 2013-14 were an average of 21.4:1 in transitional kindergarten (TK) through third grade and 25.8: 1 in fourth through sixth grades. In 2014-15, Romero said they project those numbers to remain about the same, with 21.7: 1 at TK through third and 25.6: 1 at fourth through sixth grades.
The district has also been able to see a reduction in combination classes, from 11 last year to just two so far this school year.
“We know instructionally we can create a rigid, structural environment (in combination classes), but it’s still not very popular,” Romero said. “We do it to keep families whole and in their neighborhood school.”
Romero said a fifth-sixth combination class is one of the least popular, just because of the transition that sixth-graders are going through as they prepare for middle school.
The school with the smallest enrollment in the district in the fall is expected to be Del Mar Hills with 335 students.
“Ocean Air is our largest school and historically it has been impacted with enrollment,” said Romero, noting this year that enrollment will drop from 797 to 789 students. “This really ends the reign of high class numbers at Ocean Air.”
Similar to Ocean Air, Sage Canyon will also drop from 731 to 684 students. Romero said this trend is because the schools are losing their higher class level cohorts and bringing up smaller cohorts starting at kindergarten. Sage Canyon will have one less kindergarten class this year.
Besides Torrey Hills with its enrollment increase from new developments, Sycamore Ridge is the only other school to see a large increase and the school is heavily affected at the first- and fifth-grade levels.
At last week’s board meeting, one new district family came to share their disappointment that their child could not get into Sycamore Ridge.
“We relocated specifically and solely because of the fantastic schools in this district, and when buying our house, we took into account how close the school was for our youngest, who is in fifth grade,” said parent Dave Beckwith.
Beckwith said they bought a home 2 1/2 blocks from the school with the expectation that their daughter would be able to walk to school, and they were looking forward to the school’s unique offerings, such as the drama program. Unfortunately, the Beckwiths learned recently of the school’s capacity problems, and that their daughter won’t be able to attend Sycamore Ridge.
“It is our hope that the over-enrollment and capacity issues at fifth grade can be resolved before the start of school,” Beckwith said.
At Sycamore Ridge, there are 61 students in the fifth grade. By contract, the district has to keep class sizes at a maximum of 28:1.
“We have to start looking into adding a teacher or creating a combination class to take care of our stakeholders,” Romero said.
He said affected families would be notified by the first week of August regarding their school.
Since the number of students in question is small, trustee Scott Wooden requested that the district do whatever it can to accommodate the families.
“We have always said we like to not displace kids whenever possible,” Wooden said.