Thurston Copes With Enrollment Spike

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School officials say they will know by December exactly how many portable classrooms will be needed at Thurston Middle School.  But they can’t say exactly why.

As the school year got underway this week at Laguna Beach’s four public schools, more than 800 students arrived at Thurston, the largest enrollment ever. Portable classrooms are being considered to catch the overflow, though no one can quite explain the reason for the unexpected increase.

Thurston principal Jenny Salberg speculated at last week’s school board meeting that it stems from the school’s reputation. “The fact that Thurston had such a great year last year, if they (students) were in private schools for elementary, they’re coming back to the middle school,” she said.

Thurston was one of only nine middle schools in the state that received the California Schools to Watch award in January and earned the California Distinguished School honor from State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

But not one factor can be pinpointed, said Salberg, adding that the student body includes newcomers from other countries, out of state and elsewhere in California.

There were 760 students last year at Thurston, growing since a dip in enrollment in 2006-07.  The previous peak was 2004-05 with 731 students.  This year’s projected number is 811 students. Salberg said there is no surge in students rolling up through the elementary schools, although El Morro and Top of the World also saw enrollment increases last year.

Thurston administrators project sixth-grade enrollment based on the fifth-grade population at El Morro and Top of the World, but in each of the last eight years more sixth-graders enrolled than anticipated, Salberg said.

Classes are now at a maximum with 32 students, and some teachers are even sharing space with other teachers.  To adjust to the increase, two roving teachers have been added to Thurston’s staff for the first time.  They will teach in other teachers’ classrooms during an open period, when teachers prepare for class, grade papers and answer messages.  Teachers will now use the office or staff lounge for those functions, said Salberg.

The temporary classrooms will be placed on one of two existing basketball courts to avoid interfering with fire engine access.  And because the portables are a stopgap solution, the court location resolves the need for expensive grading or building a foundation, said Ted Doughty, director of the schools’ facilities, grounds and construction.

If student numbers stay high and classrooms are crowded, permanent classrooms will be recommended to the board, he said, taking up to two years to plan and finish.

“That’s why we’re going to be careful about that long-term study as far as population growth,” said Doughty.  “Is it really a bubble?  Do we get through this year knowing next year we’ll see a decrease?” Doughty said he’d return to the board with more specifics after school routines get in place and numbers stabilize.

Setting up utilities, outfitting and acquiring two temporary classes would cost an estimated $275,488, Doughty figured. Money will come from the school district’s building fund. Leasing classrooms for $23,356 each annually rather than purchasing was another option presented to the board. The figure excludes fees and utilities.

Once new classrooms are built, Doughty doesn’t think resale of the temporary classrooms will be lucrative.  “We’ll probably have to sell at an extreme discount because there are so many out there at this time,” he said, due to fluctuating enrollment numbers at other schools.

Before spending money on depreciating portables, board member Theresa O’Hare asked that every other possibility, such as building higher, be exhausted before temporaries are approved.  “We owe it to the taxpayers,” she said.

Board members noted that time is of the essence, especially if the converted classrooms are placed on high-demand basketball courts.  “There’s going to be a whole lotta angry people,” board member Ketta Brown conjectured.


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