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New PHR community’s students will remain assigned to Solana Ranch

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The Solana Beach School District met on Dec. 6 in the new Skyline School’s multi-use room.
Karen Billing

The Solana Beach School District board decided not to change its decision to assign some students from new Pacific Highlands Ranch homes to Solana Ranch Elementary School, based on revised projections of incoming student numbers and available capacity at the school.

In October, the board assigned new students from the community of Sendero to Solana Ranch; the communities of Terrazza, Vista Del Mar and Carmel to Carmel Creek and Solana Pacific; and students from Vista Santa Fe to Solana Santa Fe in Rancho Santa Fe. After the board made the assignments, some parents requested that they reverse the decision to send Sendero students to Solana Ranch citing an already overcrowded campus.

“I appreciate hearing from the community because they had some of the same questions that I also had and it gave me an opportunity to follow up and research and visit the school,” said SBSD Vice President Julie Union at a special board meeting on Dec. 6. “I’m going to trust the experts and the student projection models. My concerns have been adequately answered and I believe staff looked at it inside and out.”

The Sendero development is planned to have a total of 112 homes and the first-built homes are just selling now. The first students are expected to arrive in the second quarter of 2019 and slowly come in over the course of the next three years. According to Executive Director of Capital Programs Caroline Brown, Sendero is expected to generate between 56 and 67 students total.

The current capacity at Solana Ranch is 690 students, with four modular classrooms on the school’s blacktop. Current enrollment is 572 with 38 open seats in various grade levels to accommodate new housing units scheduled to come on line this school year.

Per conservative projections from Decision Insite, with Sendero assigned to the school, enrollment will remain under 600 for the next five years, with the peak year being 2020 with 577 students. Using a more moderate projection of student generation rates, peak enrollment would reach 592 students in 2020, still below the capacity of 690.

“I do not want to overcrowd Solana Ranch but I have 100 percent full confidence in the ability to deliver that (instructional) program at 572 and I feel the same level of confidence at 592,” SBSD President Debra Schade said. “It’s a very difficult decision for me because I heard from very passionate parents but I do think that with that school stable and the additional resources, I feel confident that Solana Ranch can accommodate the Sendero community.”

In making a recommendation, district staff and the board considered the numbers from Decision Insite, taking into account historical student generation rates, existing space and class sizes. Districtwide, enrollment is in a decline, Brown said, and they are seeing smaller kindergarten classes and larger cohorts leaving in the sixth grade. As an example, Solana Ranch had a kindergarten class of 55 students this year when they were anticipating 79 students. The district has also yet to see all of the students anticipated from Almeria and Olvera developments, she said.

During public comment, Solana Ranch parent Ken Song expressed his concerns about program equity; he believes the data shows that the school is on the spectrum of being overcrowded when other schools have capacity and more space for special programs.

“For me the most important thing is that all students across the district are given a fair shake,” Song said. “I don’t want programs to suffer.”

Sabrina Lee, assistant superintendent of instructional services, said that the district has evaluated whether there is physical space and staffing to ensure that the quality programs are not impacted, such as Discovery Labs, guidance and English language development services.

“I don’t believe that the school is overcrowded,” Lee said. “We continue to look at supporting staff to ensure students receive the highest quality of equity…Do I think the students at Solana Ranch are receiving a world class education? Yes, I can say that wholeheartedly.”

Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said one thing the district has started to discuss is increasing staffing levels at its larger campuses to help meet student needs.

At past board meetings, the board heard complaints and comments from Solana Ranch parents that the school struggles to accommodate all students at the current level of enrollment. Many parents cited lunch time as a problem as there are four lunch periods spanning from 11:40 a.m. to 1:20 p.m., lunch service is slow and the dining area and playground areas are too crowded.

Over the last month, board members visited Solana Ranch to take a look at morning drop-off and dismissal as well as observe the lunch period. Schade said while there can always be safety improvements, she didn’t see anything that was an anomaly at Solana Ranch during pick-up and drop-offs.

“I thought it was one of the best drop off and dismissals of any of our schools so I was actually pleasantly surprised,” Schade said.

Schade said Solana Ranch’s lunch period was also one of the best in the entire district. During her visit, Union timed students going through the lunch line and said it took about two minutes; Schade said that there were many open seats in the lunch area and students had a lot of space on the playground.

“I didn’t feel like spreading the lunch period out was a negative for kids, I think kids are benefiting,” Schade said.

“No particular lunch had a lot of students in it,” echoed board member Vicki King.

King thanked the community for its engagement on this issue—she said it made a difference to have public input throughout the process.

“This is a really hard decision and ultimately I’ve come to the conclusion that we have been elected to make these tough decisions. It’s not easy but we do feel like we’ve had the opportunity to speak to everyone and look at every piece of data,” King said. “I’ve looked at more data on this issue than any other issue in the 12 years I’ve been on the board. We haven’t taken this decision lightly and it’s not easy.”

In the coming year the district will continue the discussion on housing the students incoming from Pacific Highlands Ranch development, 515 homes that will be built between 2019 and 2023. The board has not made a decision on building the district’s eighth school and a group of concerned residents circulated a petition that garnered 877 signatures urging them not to eliminate that option.

“We’ve heard a lot (of input). We’ve heard build school eight and don’t build school number eight. We’ve heard expand Ranch and don’t expand Ranch. We’ve heard use the existing facilities and we’ve heard don’t use the existing facilities and keep the Pacific Highlands Ranch students in Pacific Highlands Ranch,” Brentlinger said. “It will be difficult to meet all and everyone’s interests. However, I can assure you the board will be genuinely engaged as they, like the staff, want to make the best decision.”