“I think there’s a perception out there that literally the majority of students from the west are going east,” Manuel Rubio, director of grants & communications for the Sweetwater Union High School District, explained in a recent interview. He was referring to the many community voices that claim middle and high schools west of the I-805 are experiencing declining enrollments because those students are transferring en masse to schools located in eastern Chula Vista.
A report done by Paul Woods, Sweetwater’s director of planning and construction, dated September 4, 2014, shows that 85.7% of students attending eastern schools live in the east. That means, 14.3% of students in eastern schools are transfers. Woods found that 4.4% of students transfer to the east under the federally mandated “No Child Left Behind" act. Another 6.3% transfer voluntarily from northwest schools and 3.6% transfer voluntarily from southwest schools.
The full report is essential reading for South Bay residents because from October 6 through November 3, the Sweetwater district— with about 40,000 students — has been holding meetings at five schools to receive input from community members about existing school needs. The data will be used to revise the district’s long-range facility master plan (LRFMA) and the document will help decide where taxpayer dollars are spent.
The first meeting was held on October 6 at Eastlake High School. There, and at each subsequent meeting, Paul Woods gave a presentation explaining that western Chula Vista is essentially built out.
The Bayfront development will consist of high-rises that typically do not generate as many students as single-family homes, Woods said. Eastern Chula Vista, meanwhile, will see a significant increase in population in the next 15 years. In particular, the Millenia Project will construct 17,400 new residential units. From that development, Woods projects eastern Chula Vista will see an extra 3500 high-school and 1500 middle-school students.
The student numbers are actually a bit higher since Baldwin & Sons recently received city approval to construct 600 residential units next to the Otay Ranch Town Center. However, Woods says these numbers are only averages and they change every year.
In an interview, Woods explained, “We generate .0869 middle-school students per resident and .2020 high-school students per resident. I’ve done demographics for a long time and .2 students is very high.”
To meet the need of those incoming students, the district currently owns a 27.18 acre site on Hunte Parkway that was originally intended for a 7–12 campus. At the Eastlake High School meeting, community members said the board should reconsider. They wanted two new school sites rather than one, so seventh graders would not be on the same campus as twelfth graders.
The district has been offered other plots of land, but nothing is finalized. The Village 8 West development, for example, has asked the district to consider their land as another school site.
At meetings in western schools, however, community members were concerned with the dilapidated conditions of their schools. At the Castle Park Middle School meeting on October 20, the principal of Castle Park High School, Viky Mitrovich, said that the ceiling of their band room is caving inward. Other community members stated that students were transferring to the east due to the poor quality of their classroom, gym, cafeteria facilities, and more.
Rubio, however, disputes the claims over massive transfer rates. He explained that California signed the Open Enrollment Act into law in 2010, which allowed students to transfer to other schools with more appealing programs.
“But there were limits to that and I think that’s one of the things I don’t think has been out there that much.” Rubio said. “When the school reached 85 percent of their capacity of what they were built for, or what they were able to handle at the time — I won’t say ‘built for’ because that shifts — then we would stop allowing voluntary transfers. The reason for that was we wanted to make sure that obviously students who lived in their neighborhood had the ability to go to their neighborhood school…. Starting really in 2012, we started capping schools and said, ‘Nope, you can’t voluntarily transfer there.’ We still allow students for very special cases; say for example, we do sibling unification.”
Eastlake Middle, Eastlake High, Olympian High, Otay Ranch High, and Rancho Del Rey Middle have been closed to voluntary transfers since 2012. Sweetwater High and San Ysidro High have been closed to transfers since 2014 and 2015, respectively. Citing Woods’s report, Rubio also added that a surprising number of transfers occur regionally: 19 percent of eastern students transfer to other eastern schools.
Within the east-west debate, two factors continue to arise: school capacity and student enrollment. Both those numbers, however, can be deceiving.
When a school is constructed, the building has a specific capacity. As enrollment increases, portables are erected. Most schools in the Sweetwater district—east and west — have built many portables at some point in their history. When student enrollment is assessed, that number is compared to the previous year, not to the original capacity. If rates decline from one year to the next — even if the school was over capacity in the previous year — the school is considered to have declining enrollment. From a business administration standpoint, the school is losing money. Rubio explains, “The basic funding formula that we get is a per-student enrollment.”
The district hired Jacobs Consultants, which reported that $780 million is needed for modernization. Once the long-range facility master plan is approved by the Sweetwater board in early 2016, the document will be used to determine how Mello Roos, Proposition BB, Proposition O, and state school bonds are spent. The district says they are listening. It could now be up to community voices to impact the next decade of public school education in both the east and west.
Disclaimer: The author currently has two children enrolled in an east-side Sweetwater school.