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Rural schools feel the enrollment pinch

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In the last half a dozen years, Arcohe Union Elementary School District has lost more than a quarter of its students due to declining enrollment.

It's a trend repeating itself across Northern California.

"I personally think we need help," said Fred Adam, an executive committee member with the Small School Districts' Association and superintendent of Placer Hills Union Elementary School District, midway between Tahoe and Sacramento. Enrollment there has also dropped by 25 percent over the past six years.

"I truly worry about the future," he said. "We want kids in rural areas to have the same opportunity in relation to technical and performing arts and access Advanced Placement classes. ... Without extra funding these kids are going to plain miss out."

School administrators believe California's rural districts are losing enrollment for many of the same reasons as urban districts: An aging population, declining birth rate and the housing bust. In rural areas, these trends are magnified by a small employment base that has been further eroded by years of recession. With few jobs and fewer options, many families have moved to the suburbs or out of state to find work.

This exodus of students drains money from rural school districts. The bulk of state funding to schools is based on enrollment. Fewer students means fewer state dollars, making it difficult for districts with dwindling enrollment to keep teachers and pay bills.

At Arcohe, a one-school K-8 district in Herald, enrollment decreased by 145 students since 2006. At the beginning of this school year, there were 414 students. Today, there are 415, but Superintendent Jim Shock doesn't see an increase on the horizon.

In fact, the district is estimating 408 students next school year with a steady downward tick through the 2017-18 school year projection of just 386 students.

The superintendent said the primary reason for the decline is that there are few families with young children moving in or establishing themselves within the district.

Arcohe is sixth among the top 10 fastest-shrinking districts in the Sacramento-Placer-El Dorado-Nevada counties region.

The district has dealt with this decline by continuing to reduce teaching and support staff, and by eliminating programs such as counseling and music, Shock said.

"We continue to provide the best programs we can and invite students and families from neighboring areas to explore our small school, child-centered environment out here," he said.

Last year, facing a $150,000 deficit, the district deferred maintenance spending when the school board denied two motions to lay off teachers whose staff is already at a minimum. A few years ago, four of its 23 teacher positions were eliminated.

When an anonymous person or group last spring distributed a flier threatening the district's lone school was going to shut down, Shock denounced the idea and said that was not an option in dealing with budget cuts.

Consolidating rural districts could make a difference — but residents often hate the idea.

"People really like their little school district in the little part of the county that they live in," said Holly Hermansen, Nevada County superintendent of schools.

Shock admits Arcohe has never been part of any serious consolidation talks.

Other small school districts in the area haven't seen the same drop as Arcohe.

In the same six-year period, between 2006 and 2012, both New Hope Elementary School in Thornton and Oak View Union Elementary School in Acampo actually saw increases, albeit by only a few students, according to figures from the state Department of Education.

New Hope saw 21 new students, while Oak View's enrollment increased by 13.

Oak View Principal Beverly Boone credits inter-district transfer agreements with the slight bump. Prior to 2006, requests to allow students to attend school outside their home districts were automatically denied. That is no longer the case.

"That's why there was an increase (at Oak View) from 2005 to 2006," Boone said, estimating the district educates about 70 students on inter-district transfers. "So you can see how that has helped us keep our enrollment up over the years."

Lodi Unified School District, like Arcohe, has seen an enrollment decrease in the last six years — 1,044 students — though not all of those students were from rural schools. Still, Houston School lost 158 students, or 43 percent, while Morada Middle decreased by 232 students, or 25 percent.

Morada Principal Janet Godina-Perez cites several reasons why her school's enrollment declined. The most significant reason, she said, is the crash in the housing market after subdivisions west of Highway 99 were built.

Morada Middle has a large attendance area — from Hammer and West lanes east to the Harney Lane-Jack Tone Road area and south to Alpine Road in Stockton, Godina-Perez said.

One big loss in enrollment at Morada Middle stems from fewer children living at the migrant farm labor camp on East Harney Lane, she said.

"We used to have 30 kids from the migrant camp," Godina-Perez said. "Now we have only 10."

She cites a couple of other reasons that Morada Middle has lost attendance in recent years.

One is the opening of Christa McAuliffe Middle School on Iron Canyon Circle in North Stockton, which took 80 to 90 students who would have previously gone to Morada. And some students may have enrolled in Benjamin Holt College Preparatory Academy in Stockton.

Houston, a K-8 school in Acampo, has seen its enrollment at the middle school level drop by 50 percent in the past two years, said Allison Gerrity, principal of both Houston and Victor schools.

Until the 2011-12 school year, half the middle school students at Houston came from Lockeford, while a quarter of the enrollment came from Acampo and another 25 percent came from Victor, Gerrity said.

However, Lockeford Elementary expanded to accommodate seventh-graders beginning in August 2011 and eighth-graders beginning with the current school year, Gerrity said. Middle school students from Victor and Acampo still attend Houston School.

News-Sentinel staff writer Ross Farrow and The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

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