Growing Pains: District deals with record enrollment

By Corey Pride / Cpride@losbanosenterprise.comNovember 3, 2012 

The Los Banos Unified School District has grown to nearly 9,800 students, a record number that is expected to grow even larger in coming years.

The district began the school year in August with a then-record 9,731 students. On Oct. 3 -- the state's designated date for documenting enrollment statistics -- the district counted 9,790 students. "We're seeing growth at a rate of 250 to 300 students a year. We're in a unique position, there's only one other overcrowded district in Merced County," Superintendent Steve Tietjen said.

The district expected to only have an increase of 20 students between August and October. Instead, nearly 60 more students arrived. Tietjen said the additional students required the district to hire four more teachers -- one for

kindergarten, two in English and one in social studies. The district is trying to find out where the additional children are coming from.

Typically student growth is calculated by birth rates five years earlier and construction of new homes. However, new home construction in the city is at a stand-still and births don't account for all of the student growth.

Earlier this year, Tietjen put forth a theory that homes are being shared by multiple families and many foreclosed residences are being rented in the city.

John Curry, the superintendent of Weaver Union School District in Merced, concurs with Tietjen.

"There's a lot of assumptions that kids are moving in with aunts, uncles," he said. "(And) I'm wondering if this is the new market for rentals because it's what people can afford opposed to the rest of the state."

Curry said his district, which includes 2,625 students on three campuses, has 600 to 800 more children than it's designed to accommodate.

"Thirty percent of our classrooms are portables. Ideally, you want 600 kids per school, you get a little bigger than that and you can't remember all the kids' names," Curry said.

Weaver Union School District has a ballot measure it's hoping to pass in next week's election that would provide money to build more facilities.

Gina Jung, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, said it's not unusual to see class sizes increase because of the state's budget cuts and the resulting teacher layoffs districts have implemented throughout the state. Jung declined to state whether overpopulation on school campuses is an issue in the state.

Tietjen indicated that there are not many district's he's aware of in California that are facing overcrowding issues. He said in Los Banos it could get worse because he's spoken to developers on the coast who are enthusiastic about building in the Central Valley again. Tietjen said people he's spoken to in the Valley predict the housing market's return is five years away, but people on the coast think it will pick up within 24 months.

In the meantime, Los Banos will open a new elementary school in 2013 and, according to Tietjen, is "aggressively discussing" purchasing land for a new junior high school.

"The state is not focused on solving district growth problems. Quite frankly, at this point, we believe we have to deal with the trends we're seeing," Tietjen said.

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