As students in Redondo Beach Unified School District head back to school this week, teachers and administrators are adjusting to a growing student body that's been bucking the trends of other beach cities for years.

While school districts in Palos Verdes, Torrance and Manhattan Beach have seen shrinking enrollment numbers in recent years, Redondo Beach has grown by more than 1,600 students in the past 10 years, according to a recent report by the district.

Superintendent Steven Keller attributes the increase in students in Redondo Beach to the good work of its teachers and faculty members. Others credit changing demographics and a booming housing market.

“These people are moving here because of you, people say, oh it's the facilities, that's your secret sauce, no the secret sauce is because of you and the magic you make happen on our campuses,” Keller told a district-wide group of faculty members at the Redondo Union High School auditorium on Monday.

Assistant superintendent Janet Redella said the enrollment increases are mostly felt at the high school and not as much at the grade school level. Class sizes for kindergarten to 3rd grade remain at 24 students on average. While for grades 4th to 12th, class sizes are at 29 students on average.

With more families in Hermosa Beach choosing Redondo Union over Mira Costa, the high school continues to grow. Roughly 20 years ago, the high school had about 1,200 students. Today, the campus schools more than 2,900 students.

Overall there are 9,674 students beginning school this year in Redondo Beach Unified schools compared to 8,063 students 10 years ago. According to the district report, total enrollment numbers are expected to top out at 10,519 by 2023-24. Over the past 10 years, enrollment has declined in Manhattan Beach by 140 students down to 6,776, in Palos Verdes down 707 students to 11,428 and in Torrance the district is down 842 students to 23,696.

Test score competition

At the same time, families of school-aged students in Redondo Beach are getting more affluent, evident by looking at the district's program for free or reduced cost lunches, Keller said.

In the 2010-11 school year, 22 percent of students were eligible to receive free or reduced cost lunches. Currently, 14 percent are eligible. Nowhere is that affluence level increasing more than in North Redondo Beach, Keller said.

“On the north side of town, you're seeing affluence at a higher clip now,” he said. “That great divide is going bye-bye.”

The changes mean schools throughout the district are facing more students and steeper competition when it comes to test scores. RBUSD is now judged among higher performing school districts with similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We still focus on the whole child, kids who are socially and emotionally balanced, embracing good nutrition and good whole health,” Keller said. “We've been doing 'good' on our test scores, but I think we can tick them up a notch.”

Inspirational teacher stories

Teachers and faculty gathered Monday to mark the start of the school year before students arrived on Wednesday. The morning was an opportunity to inform and to inspire as several teachers delivered emotional stories about their journeys as educators.

In the most dramatic presentation of the morning, Tommy Chaffins, who teaches history and coaches girls volleyball, told the audience about a domestic violence incident that happened to him as a child while he attended grade school in Redondo Beach.

Chaffins' parents had divorced and he went with his mother to their old house in North Redondo where his father was staying. The couple got into an argument. As things got heated, Chaffins' mother told him to run out of the front door. A few moments later, his father grabbed a kitchen knife and killed his mother.

Chaffins had to testify to the incident at court and later went to live with his grandparents. He said the support and care he received from teachers at Berney Elementary School at the time and later at Redondo Union High School shaped him as a positive person.

“Some people don't get to meet their parents and don't get to love their parents,” Chaffins told the crowd at the auditorium on Monday. “At an early age, I never took the negative, but took the positive.”

He said he's applied the lessons he learned from that tragedy to his coaching and teaching. On the court, he calls it “next play focus:” the ability to forget about a past mistake and move forward.

“No matter what has taken place, you have to be focused on the next play and what's coming next,” Chaffins said.

Adams Middle School Principal Lisa Veal shared her journey and the teacher that inspired her as a young woman to become an educator. She said it was Mrs. Miller who first got her to open up about her family and the issues she was facing at home.

She urged her colleagues to stay focused and aware, to take the time to connect with one another.

“My challenge this school year is to stop and really see those around you,” Veal said. “If you have a student who's had a bad day, find out why. If you have a colleague that's going through something, take the time to talk with them.”

Monica Joyce, president of the teacher's union said the start of the school year is bittersweet.

“It's great to see everybody,” she said. “It's always an exciting time with a tinge of sadness, having to put shoes on again and all that.”

Now in her 26th year teaching in Redondo Beach, she said every year is a blessing.

“I'm astounded on a daily basis,” she said.

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