Maywood school is the last to open in massive building project. But dwindling enrollment makes today’s LAUSD a very different district.
Sarah Favot | August 11, 2017
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When the Maywood Center for Enriched Studies welcomes students next week, it will be the last school — the 131st — to open under the district’s more than $20 billion school building project.
But as the district’s enrollment has plummeted since the building program began, the state of the district is far different now than when voters agreed to back the school construction bonds.
Fifteen years ago when then-Superintendent Roy Romer began the push for the building program, schools were bursting at the seams with students. In 2002, 100 schools were busing students to other schools that had more room and 225 were on a year-round calendar. The district hadn’t built a new school since 1970. Students’ education suffered. The areas of the district where overcrowding was the biggest problem were East LA and South LA.
“Our commitment was you can go to a classroom in your neighborhood,” said Mark Hovatter, the district’s chief facilities executive. “You don’t have to have involuntary busing and you don’t have to go year-round to get that seat.”
And so began the nation’s largest public infrastructure investment, which transformed LA neighborhoods. When the first shovel hit the ground, however, officials couldn’t imagine the dramatic shift the district would take. After huge growth from 1980 at about 500,000 students to an enrollment peak at around 750,000 students in 2004, the number of children in the district has steadily declined.
The building project did not take into account the rapid growth of charter schools in the city — publicly funded but independently run public schools. In 2002, there were just 24 charter schools in LA. Today that number has grown to more than 230. The idea was that charter schools could close, so the district should be prepared to take on all students.
But charter schools aren’t the only reason for declining enrollment in the district. The overall number of schoolchildren in Los Angeles has also dwindled. The birth rate in LA County has declined as rising rents have forced some families to leave the city.
There were about 558,000 students enrolled in district schools last year, which officials are projecting will drop by 10,000 next year, while charter school enrollment is expected to grow by about 4,000 students from 107,000 last year.
The building project has been flexible to the enrollment slide. Originally the district was preparing to open 160 schools, but that number declined to 131.
Enrollment data show that some schools that were built as part of the building program have lost as many as 500 students within the last five years. Extra space on campuses is being used in other ways for charter school co-locations, for example. Other ways that the district tries to increase enrollment is by creating a magnet at a school that will draw students from other areas of the city or redrawing school boundary lines.
However, enrollment in the district is projected to increase around 2022, according to district documents.
Three of the schools that were built as part of the building project — Porter Ranch, Playa Vista, and Colfax Charter Elementary in North Hollywood — are filled to capacity and the district is planning on building additions, showing that enrollment isn’t declining everywhere, Hovatter said.
Enrollment is looking positive at MaCES so far. The magnet school has 1,100 students in sixth- through 11th-grade who will enter the brand-new campus in Southeast Los Angeles next week. MaCES Principal Gabriel Duran says that there is a waiting list of 300 students to attend the new school.
Now that MaCES is open, Bell High School — the last school to be on a year-round calendar due to overcrowding — will be back on a regular schedule after 36 years.
“We’ve been getting the word out that this is an opportunity for you to get into a magnet, but more importantly as a (center for enriched studies) we do have a high number of students who were bused out to other parts of the city,” he said. “We have students who are coming back from going out on a bus to LACES who are returning back to their community.”
Students won’t have to wake up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. to catch a bus to get to school, Duran said. And they can stay later for after-school activities without worrying about having to catch the bus home at the end of the day. Parents can also be more involved in a school that is in their neighborhood.
“Children having to choose between being in a club or catching the late bus is a big deal for them,” Duran said.
Students will be attending the school from other parts of the city as well. Duran said he will have buses picking students up from the Fairfax area, East LA/Boyle Heights, and Gardena.
The school will be the third in the district with a center for enriched studies program and it will be the first of its kind in that area of the district. It is a magnet school, so students from all over the district can apply through the magnet application program. Busing is provided.
Students will participate in a rigorous academic curriculum that includes mandatory AP World History in the 10th-grade They also can start earning college credit. Students are expected to take electives and stick with them throughout their middle and high school years.
Some teachers at the school grew up in the Maywood area, and one English teacher grew up four blocks away from the school and remembers when the site was an empty field, Duran said.
“I think that’s where it creates the excitement,” he said.
Some of the students’ parents who attended LA Unified schools remember being on a year-round calendar, but now their children can be on a regular schedule, he said.
The school will have a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sept. 23.
“It’s a big celebration for us with that we fulfilled the commitment of everyone going to a neighborhood school,” Hovatter said of MaCES’ opening.
But Hovatter said the work isn’t finished. The district still has $5 billion in approved projects in the planning, design, or construction phase to modernize school buildings that are old and in need of repair. The district has many schools that were built more than 100 years ago.
“Our mission remains to go in and address those worn-out campuses,” he said.
During all of those years when the district didn’t build new campuses, they placed temporary bungalows on playgrounds and parking lots of schools. At one time, there were 10,000 bungalows being used as classrooms. Hovatter said that number has dwindled to 8,000 and he hopes they will get it down to 7,000. Those bungalows — which are being used well past their lifespan — prove the district still needs more facilities, he said.
“We are still working,” he said.