By Marsha Sutton
The increase in the number of sixth-grade students this year in schools in the Solana Beach and Del Mar Union school districts was unexpected and has caused some concern at the San Dieguito Union High School District, which was noted by SDUHSD superintendent Ken Noah at a Sept. school board meeting.
The sixth-grade population increased by 78 new students in the Del Mar Union School District and by 13 new students in the Solana Beach School District, according to DMUSD superintendent Jim Peabody and SBSD superintendent Leslie Fausset.
Ten of SBSD's 13 new sixth-grade students reside in the Earl Warren Middle School attendance area, while the remaining three, now attending Carmel Valley's Solana Pacific School, are in the Carmel Valley Middle School attendance area.
Peabody said almost all of Del Mar's 78 new sixth-graders are enrolled at Ocean Air, Sage Canyon and Torrey Hills schools, which are part of Carmel Valley Middle School's attendance area.
Combined, this could mean 81 unanticipated students attending San Dieguito's already overcrowded CVMS for seventh grade next year.
The increase in new sixth-grade students forced the DMUSD to bump some existing sixth-graders to a different school, causing school board members and district staff to express regret for the last-minute shuffling.
Peabody explained that the California Education Code gives priority to students residing within a school's attendance area, so students who move into a school's boundaries have priority over students attending that school from outside the school's boundaries, even if the existing students have been attending that school for years. The sixth-grade DMUSD students who were forced to leave their school reside in a different neighborhood.
"It has to do with the way schools are funded," Peabody said. "The people in an area are paying a tax to build a school, and they should have priority for their kids to go to that school because they're paying that tax."
Overcrowded Del Mar schools
Because of inadequate space, the district was unable to admit all the new and existing sixth-graders at heavily-impacted Sage Canyon School. "We didn't have room for another teacher or another classroom," Peabody said.
At Ocean Air, the resource specialist program was reconfigured and the physical education teacher became a roaming teacher without a classroom, "so we could accommodate there," he said. "But there was just no way of accommodating another room at Sage Canyon. We'd already done all the tricks we could."
To allow all the new resident students and the existing non-resident students to attend, class sizes would have had to increase "to an inordinate amount," he said.
Peabody said teachers voluntarily allowed their class sizes to rise to accommodate more students, even though classes for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade teachers in the district are guaranteed by their contract not exceed 27 students.
"The district values small class size," commented Peabody, who said teachers "went all the way up to 29 and 30 students in the sixth-grade classes."
"Our teachers were very gracious in saying we will waive the limit on class size," he said. "But at a certain point you don't have a place for any more bodies."
Six students were initially affected, he said, but "we kept working and working and working."
After Welcome Back letters were returned to the district as undeliverable, the district ascertained that some students had moved away and those seats were made available. This, combined with other efforts, meant that the policy affected only two families, "and they both landed in schools they are very happy with," Peabody said.
It was an unfortunate situation made even worse, Peabody said, because the students were initially asked to attend Sage Canyon because their neighborhood school, Ocean Air, was full at the time. "And then we turn around two years later and ask them to go back to Ocean Air because Sage Canyon is full," he said.
Peabody said the district is working with legal counsel "to develop a policy that states if we place a family at a school, they are considered residents of that school." This is a policy that would not violate the Calif. Education Code but which would classify a student as a resident of that school once they attend school there, even if the family does not live within the school's actual boundaries.
"If we could make them residents, then the people who move in at the end would not have priority over them," he said. Students new to a neighborhood don't have the affiliation with friends and teachers yet and could more easily attend a school outside their attendance area, causing less disruption to students already settled into a non-neighborhood school for several years, he explained.
The DMUSD regularly places caps on schools, which set a maximum number of students and sections at each school. Exceeding the caps requires action by the school board, another hurdle. But capping a school may be unnecessary, Peabody said.
"That's something I'm looking into, to try to make sense of it all," he said. "They're there primarily so we can staff the school and understand how many teachers we need, but we make adjustments to that as we go."
As an example, he cited Del Mar Hills Academy which added another first-grade class due to last-minute demand.
"When there got to be a critical mass, I just made the decision that if that's where the people wanted to go that we would add a class," he said. "My feeling is that if you can generate students at a school and you still have space, then that's where they belong."
The possibility of open boundaries for the three high-enrollment schools south of SR-56 - Ocean Air, Sage Canyon and Torrey Hills - is one option the district is reviewing as a potential solution to the problem. Open boundaries for all the district's schools is another.
"That's the kind of thing we need to look into," Peabody said. "I'm not sure about the tax situation. When people are paying Mello-Roos taxes for a school that's built in their neighborhood, then what rights are due the families?"
In January, the district will be reviewing all its options on ways to resolve the issue. Peabody said the district will be refining the strategic plan, developing a strategic management system and working on a facilities master plan, "which should give us a good indication of how we can get some balance at our schools," he said. "We have schools that have empty rooms and others that are woefully impacted."
Peabody said he is waiting until January to begin discussions because at least two new board members will be elected, and he'd like all five trustees together "to start mapping out the future." He hopes to have final guidelines in place by early spring so families can make plans.
Open boundaries is just one idea. "We just need to be thoughtful about how that would actually work," Peabody said, concerned about unintended consequences and the ramifications of any policy changes.
"It's like peeling an onion, and that's why I want to take some time and really make sure before we make a major leap," he said.
Peabody said it was regretful that students were forced to leave their home schools. "We're trying to look at anything that would help us, so families could be assured that they could stay in a school once they start there," he said.