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  • Autumn Payne / apayne@sacbee.com

    Megan Contreras, right, reads a note on the pending closure of Fruit Ridge Elementary as she picks up her 7-year-old daughter, Alyssa, at the school Friday. Both are upset about a vote by Sacramento City Unified School District trustees very early Friday to close Fruit Ridge and six other campuses at the end of the school year.

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. / pkitagaki@sacbee.com

    Evelyn Romo, 10, pleaded with district trustees Thursday: "I love strings (the Fruit Ridge music program). … Don't take strings away from me."

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. / pkitagaki@sacbee.com

    Evelyn Romo, 10, far right, waits to address the Sacramento City Unified school board Thursday night. She accompanied her mom, Evangelina Lopez, second from left, and brother Felipe Romo, 8.

Troubled area loses its heart in closing

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jun. 5, 2013 - 4:11 pm

Fruit Ridge Elementary outlasted the Great Depression, two World Wars, the encroachment of urban Sacramento, dozens of principals and hundreds of teachers.

But it couldn't overcome the deep, systematic problems reshaping the entire Sacramento City Unified School District.

The south Sacramento school, opened in 1911, will close at the end of this school year, along with six other nearby schools. Like elsewhere in the district, enrollment at Fruit Ridge is down. The population in the surrounding community is shrinking and aging. Incomes are falling. Homeownership is decreasing.

Those demographic shifts have left Fruit Ridge and the surrounding district at a crossroads. A needed influx of young families isn't on the horizon: The district, with an enrollment of 47,000, lost 900 students this year and expects to lose another 800 next year.

The steady declines made closing schools such as Fruit Ridge inevitable, district officials said.

"This is not a judgment about your school," Assistant Superintendent Mary Hardin Young told a gathering of Fruit Ridge parents this month. "We simply have more schools than we can afford."

Each of the seven schools slated for closure has something unique, a characteristic that makes it beloved among parents, students and staff.

At Fruit Ridge, it's the history: A sign next to a century-old oak tree near the entrance says, "Dedicated March 14, 1918 to the Boys of Fruitridge who served in the World War."

And it's the community garden: Maintained year-round by students, volunteers and teachers, it blossoms into a bright display every spring, a talisman in a poverty-stricken neighborhood.

There's also the music program, a collaboration with California State University, Sacramento, that regularly sends the sounds of string instruments wafting through the air.

More broadly, the school has seen hefty test score increases over the last seven years, much like other district schools, including those slated for closure.

"I feel very strongly about the quality of education at this school," said Mandy Carrillo, who volunteers 30 hours a week at Fruit Ridge and grew up nearby. "Because of this school, I was able to get into and graduate from UC Santa Cruz."

Even so, few were surprised to see Fruit Ridge on the list of proposed closures announced by the district a few weeks ago. The campus lost 400 students a couple of years ago when a Spanish immersion charter school moved into another recently closed school.

That's on top of the 7 percent population decline seen in the surrounding community from 2000 to 2010 – as the rest of the four-county Sacramento region grew by 20 percent.

The school has struggled with issues related to poverty for decades. Its test scores rank in the 10th percentile statewide, even with the recent increases. Parental income and educational attainment, two predictors of student success, remain low in the Fruit Ridge neighborhood. The area's median income is half the regionwide average, and only 5 percent of adults have a bachelor's degree.

Main building dates to '30s

It was a different story 100 years ago when Fruit Ridge Elementary began as a K-8 school educating 1,200 students, according to Carrillo, a history buff whose mother, Lanae Davis, has spent more than a decade as the school's librarian.

In the late 1930s, the main building for the school was constructed. It became part of the Sacramento City Unified School District a couple of decades later.

Much of the school was refurbished after an asbestos scare in 2011. Despite its age, the state says Fruit Ridge is in good condition; neighbors say it has served as a steady presence in a changing neighborhood.

Oscar Byrd, 66, has watched Fruit Ridge's recent history unfold from the front porch of his house. He sent his kids there, and still gets a smile from watching children pass by in the morning.

He worries about what the closure will do to his neighborhood.

"If they close that school, it's going to be reeking with vandalism all around here," said Byrd, who has lived near the school for 40 years.

The Fruit Ridge neighborhood doesn't need more problems. The housing bust swept through a few years back, displacing many who succumbed to the temptation of home refinancing based on inflated values.

"A lot of people lost their houses," Byrd said. "A lot of people just moved out."

Tied to the foreclosures came the recession. Unemployment in the area shot above 20 percent by 2011, census figures show. When the dust settled, Byrd didn't recognize many of his neighbors anymore.

The number of white residents in the neighborhood fell by 16 percent from 2000 to 2010, while the number of black and Asian American residents fell by roughly 10 percent. Only Latinos saw slight population growth.

All of these trends have also occurred, to a lesser extent, in the wider Sacramento City Unified district, leading to the planned school closures.

The unemployment rate across the district stood at 16 percent in 2011, compared with a statewide average of 12 percent, according to the latest census figures.

The district's white and black populations plummeted during the last decade. The Asian population declined slightly, and the Latino population grew.

The overall population declines reflect falling birthrates, migration to the suburbs, and the aging of long-term residents who no longer can have children.

Now, as the economy recovers, people are moving back into the area. But most rent, with no real chance at competing with investors paying cash for south Sacramento homes. And renters don't always feel a deep connection to neighborhood schools.

"A few are buying," Byrd said of his new neighbors. "Not a whole lot."

Charter school in future?

Even amid those trends, Fruit Ridge might not be slated for closure if the Language Academy, a Spanish immersion program, hadn't moved to another campus in 2011.

The 400 children at the Language Academy, many from the surrounding neighborhood, and the remaining 350 students at Fruit Ridge Elementary stuffed the school's campus and adjacent portable classrooms for years.

Without the academy's students, and with otherwise declining enrollment, much of the school went unused this year, according to district capacity estimates used to determine which schools to close.

The campus, and the other schools slated for closure, may still get a second life.

Speculation was rife Friday that a new charter school would open in the Fruit Ridge building; some students said their teachers reassured them Friday with that possibility.

Five of the six traditional schools that Sacramento City Unified has closed in the past decade now house a charter school, state data show.

Even so, some parents said they would prefer a neighborhood school that takes all comers to a charter school that targets a particular interest or ethnic group.

Fruit Ridge students who don't attend a charter school will mostly be funneled to Oak Ridge Elementary or Father Keith B. Kenny Elementary, both a mile away. Many Fruit Ridge teachers will likely end up at those schools, too.

The future is more uncertain for school maintenance and administrative staff.

"I have no idea where I'm going to go next year," said Fruit Ridge Principal Yee Yang. "But what's important is to make sure our kids have a smooth transition."

That transition was on the minds of many parents taking their kids to Fruit Ridge on Friday morning.

"(The school) means a lot to us," said Latisha Williams, 23, holding her 5-year-old son Caleb's hand. "It's something my child needs to stay in the area."

Several parents and students were particularly upset at the thought of losing the school's huge garden and music program.

"I love strings," 10-year-old Evelyn Romo said recently at a community meeting about the closure, referring to the music program. "I've been in strings two years. Don't take strings away from me."

ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS TO BE CLOSED

• Washington

• Maple

• Collis P. Huntington

• Fruit Ridge

• Joseph Bonnheim

• Mark Hopkins

• Clayton B. Wire

UP FOR VOTE ON MARCH 7

• Tahoe

• Mark Twain

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Read more articles by Phillip Reese



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