When Ironwood Ridge High School opened its doors for the first time last year, teachers and administrators at Canyon del Oro High School were relieved.
They were promised smaller class sizes and no more of the overcrowding that had plagued the school for years. They got what they wanted.
Decline in student population, however, has led to the downsizing of several programs, leaving some teachers, especially in the school's elective program, scrambling to find enough students to fill classes.
When the district redrew its boundaries two years ago, just before the opening of IRHS, out of the district's five middle schools - Amphi, Coronado, Cross, La Cima and Wilson K-8 - only one of those, Cross, was designed to feed into CDO. Previously, Wilson and Coronado also fed into CDO.
"It seems to me that the way the boundaries were drawn included all of the areas of new growth within the Ironwood Ridge boundaries and that the CDO boundaries included areas that were pretty much stable," said Chris Yetman, CDO's math department head. "The district was going to pretty much guarantee that Ironwood Ridge would quickly become overcrowded and CDO would become smaller and the district was going to have to change them in the future and that didn't make much sense to me. We need to find a balance and send some of the areas that are growing to both schools."
Last year's graduating eighth graders from Cross consisted of only 319 students, said CDO Principal Mike Gemma. Slightly more than 300 of those students came to CDO, he said.
The remaining students in the 400-member freshman class are comprised of students who took advantage of the state's open enrollment law, a law that allows students who should be going to one high school to attend another.
To have 100 students enrolled in CDO from other areas of the city is pretty typical, Gemma said. About 30 of those students are coming from the small town of Oracle, where students have the choice of attending CDO or San Manuel High School, since Oracle does not have its own high school.
The remaining 70 are vastly comprised of students who should have gone to IRHS, Gemma said. And while he said the number of students who are enrolled in CDO as a result of the open enrollment policy is fairly typical, this year's dependence on it in order to keep numbers up is not.
"You know, it's a double-edge sword," he said. "You've got some families who just love the thrill of opening a new school and being the first graduating class, but you have other's that aren't comfortable with that and want to go with something they are more familiar with. So, just as we've had students come this way, Amphi High and Ironwood Ridge have seen it go the other way. We've tried to do the best to accommodate those kids."
In order to keep their programs alive, some teachers have had to do some extra work in order to "recruit" students into programs like fine arts.
"We are in the position now where we have to do some recruiting, and that's on top of everything else we do," said Carolyn Seidl, the head of the fine arts department at CDO. "We have to make sure our programs are highly visible and get the word out and try to recruit students into the fine arts area."
Seidl said the numbers are dangerously low in the music and band programs, two programs that depend on high enrollment numbers.
Darrell Prochaska, CDO's band director, said that while the open enrollment policy has brought five students to his band, enrollment has dropped significantly this year from 96 students last year to only 70 this year.
"But we're still good," he said confidently. "It's a concern, but right now, I'm working on more of a plan to build off our one feeder school and do a lot more recruiting and get the kids signed in so we have a solid transfer into the high school. It's something that needs to be done. If you want your program to grow and survive, you have to do a little extra."
Participation in the school's sports programs is also down significantly. While Gemma cited one of the reasons why students came to CDO as opposed to other schools was for the established sports programs, head football Coach Pat Nugent said numbers for the freshman team have dropped by almost half, from 60 players to only 34.
"It really hit the football program hard," he said. "This is a program that relies on high numbers in order to survive."
The drop in numbers has left some teachers and district officials wondering why the boundaries were changed to only include one feeder school for CDO, while each of the other high schools, which were each supposed to have a smaller student population than CDO, has two.
"I am concerned," said board member Nancy Young Wright. "I have been concerned ever since the board voted to redraw the boundaries."
Young Wright said she did not vote in favor of the changes in order to avoid the concerns that CDO teachers and administrators are now expressing.
Now, she said she thinks the change has been counterproductive in eliminating student population issues.
"I don't think anyone wanted an existing school damaged," she said.
Gemma said CDO's optimum population number is between 1,800 and 2,000 students. If enrollment trends continue, he said, the school could be far below where it needs to be in order to maintain the large array of programs it offers.
"We would have to be pretty consistent with that open enrollment number across the board in order to stay viable unless something drastic happens to that feeder pattern within Cross," he said.
Gemma said the counselors at CDO have done an "excellent job" at encouraging seniors to take more classes than the bare minimum of four per semester, which has also kept class enrollment numbers up.
In the meantime, Young Wright said even though a new middle school site is in the works, "that school is a long way off."