North County superintendents discuss enrollment rates’ impact on school districts

Photo by Taylor O’Connor
STUDENTS’ FUTURE: County Superintendent Susan Salcido (far left) hosted a forum with all North County superintendents (from left to right: Santa Maria Bonita’s Darren McDuffie, Orcutt Union’s Holly Edds, Guadalupe Union’s Emilio Handall, and Santa Maria Joint Union’s Antonio Garcia) to discuss the district’s plans for the future and how they best prepare students for their next steps.

School site development and expansion due to higher student enrollment rates and the investments being made in quality education and career preparation were highlighted during the Santa Barbara County Education Office’s State of Education on May 9. 

Hosted by the Office of Education and the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, the annual North County update gives elected officials and local businesses the opportunity to hear what school districts are doing to serve students and get them ready for the future. 

This year, Superintendent of Schools Susan Salcido hosted a forum with North County school districts’ superintendents, followed by a presentation from Allan Hancock College and a panel discussing high school professional development. 

During the superintendents forum, Salcido asked each leader about career building, collaboration between the districts, support for students’ development outside of academics, and what’s in the future for each district.

Antonio Garcia, Santa Maria Joint Union High School District’s superintendent, said that he and other district officials have been looking for land to build another high school, since the district has more than 9,000 students enrolled. 

“Our three comprehensive high schools, the two largest are at 3,200 students; they were built for 1,700 and 2,000 respectively. Even our smallest [school], Righetti, at 2,500 was built for 1,700,” Garcia said. 

This year, enrollment rates slightly flattened out, he said, but with the city’s plan to continue growing, Santa Maria Joint Union expects rates to keep climbing. 

“Our schools are bursting at the seams, and we need to make sure we have the best quality education for our students,” Garcia said. “An ideal size for a high school will be no more than 2,000 students.” 

Guadalupe Union School District Superintendent Emilio Handall also discussed his district’s expansion. Residents passed two tax measures to build a new junior high school, and the district received $10 million in state and federal funding to build an early learning center that will house a brand new preschool and an expanding transitional kindergarten program.

“We’ve made a lot of investment in enrichment after school, before school, in between school sessions to ensure that our students are not only safe and nourished, but also getting experiences they wouldn’t necessarily get,” Handall said. 

Orcutt Union School District Superintendent Holly Edds discussed the district’s investment in creating a single point of entry at Orcutt Academy to increase safety and security on campus and a need to adjust the budget as the district faces declining enrollment, similar to what’s happening statewide after the pandemic.

Through one-time funds and some state funding, the district has been able to continue its enrichment programs—including its acceleration courses for students who are ready for more advanced learning and intervention services for those who need extra help coming out of the pandemic—while facing lower enrollment rates. 

She added that Orcutt Academy has also invested in programs that go beyond the classroom where students can learn how to balance budgets and pay bills as well as learn about mortgages and why they have to pay taxes, she said.

“It’s about those greater skills … about being able to collaborate and work together, being a good team player, being able to work in groups,” Edds said. “That’s really what education is about and should be about moving forward.”

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