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  • Randall Benton /

    John Schmitz picks up his daughter Madison, 12, Friday at Golden Sierra High School in Garden Valley. To save money, Black Oak Mine Unified moved its junior high students to the high school campus.

  • Randall Benton /

    Golden Sierra High School principal Kevin Ahern stands uphill from the junior high portion of the Garden Valley school Friday. The region's small, rural school districts are struggling financially.

Sacramento region rural schools see rapid enrollment declines

Published: Sunday, Mar. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 3, 2013 - 3:07 pm

Sacramento City Unified captured headlines last month with its decision to close seven schools because of declining enrollment, but it's not the fastest-shrinking district in the region.

It's not even in the top 20.

The Sacramento region's small, mostly rural districts are, with few exceptions, losing students at breakneck pace.

Gold Oak Union, nestled among the winding, cracked roads of the El Dorado County foothills, lost a third of its students over the past six years, dropping from 716 students in 2006 to 493 in 2012.

Black Oak Mine Unified, which stretches 50 miles from the uninhabited Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe to the western El Dorado County community of Cool, lost one in five students during the same period, bringing enrollment to 1,569 students.

Placer Hills Union Elementary, midway between Tahoe and Sacramento, offers a rich program that includes music, technology and physical education. Enrollment has nonetheless dropped by 25 percent over the past six years, from 1,246 to 934.

"I personally think we need help," said Fred Adam, superintendent of Placer Hills Union and an executive committee member with the Small School Districts' Association. "I truly worry about the future.

"We want kids in rural areas to have the same opportunity in relation to technical and performing arts and access to Advanced Placement classes. … Without extra funding these kids are going to plain miss out."

Rural districts are losing enrollment for many of the same reasons as urban districts in the Sacramento region: an aging population and declining birth rate. 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.

"It's a pretty consistent story throughout California in rural communities," Adam said. "You can't compete with time and distance."

All told, the 10 fastest-shrinking districts in the Sacramento region, each with fewer than 7,500 students, have seen enrollment declines of 20 percent or more during the past six years.

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.

"It's a double whammy when you get a budget cut from the state and budget cuts from enrollment," said Holly Hermansen, Nevada County superintendent of schools. The county had 14,600 students six years ago. This year it has 12,800.

Add a growing number of public charter schools – many available online – siphoning students from traditional public schools, and district leaders have had to make tough decisions.

Around the region, urban districts caught in a similar trend have closed schools to consolidate operations and lower overhead costs; in the four-county region, districts have closed 113 schools, excluding charter schools, since 2000. That option is more problematic in rural areas, which often have only a handful of schools serving a large geographic area.

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," Hermansen said.

Consolidation problems

Even consolidating a few small schools can be challenging.

The 1,569 students in Black Oak Mine Unified attend seven schools scattered along two-lane roads that cut through rugged countryside between Auburn and Placerville, an area known as the Georgetown Divide.

Life on the Divide has been tough since the logging industry began its decline in the mid-1980s, said Kevin Ahern, principal of the district's Golden Sierra High School. It got tougher during the recent downturn, when construction jobs fell off.

Since 2006, the district has lost 410 students or 21 percent of its enrollment. As enrollment has declined, the district – the community's largest employer – has trimmed its workforce, exacerbating the cycle.

Black Oak Mine trustees voted last school year to move the seventh- and eighth-grade students from schools in Georgetown and Cool that served grades kindergarten through eight, shifting them to the Golden Sierra High School campus in Garden Valley.

District officials argued that merging the campuses was the best way to consolidate resources. The two schools are able to share some teachers, allowing the district to keep elective classes that were at risk because of underenrollment.

Parents of some of the younger students fought the proposal, worried their children would be bullied or tempted to date older students. The move also meant students would be traveling longer distances on windy country roads. The district pressed forward, and the new arrangement started when school opened last fall.

Robin Moore and Kelli St. Dennis, both sophomores at Golden Sierra, said life at their high school hasn't been the same since. The girls interrupted their lunch on a recent Friday to point to a gaggle of preteens passing noisily by.

"They are immature," sighed Moore, saying the younger students are loud and annoying and that the boys sometimes shout lewd remarks at older girls. "It's not the high school experience I thought it would be."

The girls also complain that the passing periods have been shortened to accommodate the junior high bell schedule and that buses are so crowded that four to five people are crammed into a seat.

Perched on a hillside, the Golden Sierra campus is a huge property with a gym and well-maintained athletic fields.

The middle school, in nine portable classrooms at the bottom of the hill, is mostly separate – although the younger students travel across campus for lunch and to take electives such as German, Spanish and industrial arts. A separate bell schedule ensures the two tiers of students don't have much contact.

Middle-schoolers said they are aware of the angst they've created among their older counterparts.

"We are younger and we came and occupied the school," said seventh-grader Skylar Johnstone. "Some have big mouths."

The younger kids face their own adjustments: longer class periods, a longer school day and a hike up two steep hills to some classes.

Still, there are pluses. Many expressed delight at taking courses such as music, German and woodshop – options they wouldn't have had at their K-8 schools.

Meanwhile, enrollment continues to decline. Another 100 students left the district after the trustees voted to consolidate the campuses, Ahern said, and district officials expect to send nine pink slips to teachers in the next two weeks.

Ahern charts the number of students who have signed up for each class next school year on a white board in his office. Numbers written in red marker indicate low enrollment that could put a class in danger. Music, vocational education, auto and metal shop all sport red numbers. Advanced German has a bright red 6 beside it.

More combined classes

Like Black Oak Mine, small rural districts throughout the Sacramento region report reduced library hours, classes that combine grade levels, and fewer teachers and administrators.

"We have literally kept programs longer than we should have," said Adam, of Placer Hills Union. "We need to bring it to a close, because we can't afford it any longer. We are looking for ways to keep the district financially viable."

Gold Oak Union School District in Placerville has managed to hang onto its music program and middle school athletic program despite declining enrollment, although it has increased class sizes and has multiple classes with combined grade levels.

"You have to be more creative," said Superintendent Wendy Neade. "It's harder to do things you want to do."

In Nevada County, one school has been closed each of the past four years, fifth-graders have been moved to middle schools, grades are increasingly combined in single classrooms – and it's still not enough.

Some rural districts have found banding together necessary to survive, even without officially consolidating. Many share transportation, food preparation and administrative services.

School districts in Nevada, Placer and El Dorado counties have considered consolidation: combining multiple school districts into one to cut administrative and maintenance costs.

Residents have been overwhelmingly opposed.

"It is a long and tedious path, and our community is very local-control oriented," said Nevada County's Hermansen.

District leaders in Placer County studied consolidation about five years ago, Adam said. "It became clear in Placer County that communities were wanting to keep their independence," he said.

Enrollment has declined in 12 of El Dorado County's school districts since 1999, said Jeremy Myers, assistant superintendent of the El Dorado County Office of Education. Districts were confronted with the consolidation issue two years ago when the Office of Education commissioned a report on merger possibilities.

The consultant, School Services of California, came up with 23 consolidation options, but almost every district offered resistance. Only two of the county's school districts – Mother Lode Union and Placerville Union – are still considering merging.

Absent consolidation, school officials tend to wear multiple hats. A superintendent at one small district in Nevada County is also a school principal and the math teacher. At 2:30 p.m. he has yard duty, Hermansen said.

Neade, the superintendent at Gold Oak Union, is also principal at the district's two schools.

Adam does double duty as the superintendent of Placer Hills Union and the principal of Sierra Hills School in Meadow Vista.

"It's the way small districts try to survive," he said.

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