There are a number of good reasons that comprehensive high schools within the same school district should be about equal in enrollment. Only one of them is athletics and keeping the schools in the same sports league.
But the prospect that Modesto's seven public high schools might be assigned to two leagues has prompted an outcry from some longtime residents and from the district administration. We would argue that the district needs to get student counts balanced not only so that school teams can play each other in sports but to assure that high schools are equitable in academic offerings, extracurricular activities, staff quality and all the other essentials for a successful school experience.
Modesto High School has been at or near the top of the district's high schools in student numbers for years. Back in 2005, Beyer was also mega-sized. Both had slightly more than 3,000 students.
After Enochs opened down the street, Beyer shrank. In the fall of 2008, it had fewer than 1,900 students and was the smallest of the then six high schools. At that point, Modesto High was the largest, followed by Davis.
Then Gregori High opened, and Davis shrank. Today, Davis has fewer than 1,300 students which is as small as any Modesto comprehensive public high school has been in recent history. Modesto and Enochs are the largest schools, each with more than 2,400 students.
The Sac-Joaquin Section, which oversees high school sports in the region, has proposed new league alignments that would move Modesto, Enochs and Gregori, which is projected to grow, into the Central California Conference with the two Turlock high schools and with Merced and Golden Valley. All have between 1,950 and 2,500 students.
The other four Modesto schools would remain in the Modesto Metro Conference, joined by Atwater, Buhach Colony and Oakdale and eventually the new El Capitan High School in Merced.
Under the current alignment, Modesto schools compete against each other, which helps keep travel costs down and, some argue, promotes better attendance and therefore gate receipts. Longtime residents value traditional school rivalries, though we think those are less distinct in a community with seven high schools than in a community with only two or even four schools.
Such rivalries also might be more important to the parents and longtime residents than to the teenage athletes. We think they would prefer to play in leagues where their team stands a chance of winning without always winning easily. While the focus in these discussions tends to be on the records of football and basketball teams, it's also important to consider the level of competition in other sports. Will a wrestler or tennis player, for example, have the same opportunities for a challenging match if another school does not have students to compete in each weight division or at the same depth?
Modesto officials have been working on modifying attendance boundaries for well over a year, and a plan goes to the school board Monday night. One of the key decisions will be whether to make the changes for fall 2013 or fall 2014.
If approved, it will be the first major boundary change since 2005-06. In the years since, high school enrollments have gone up and down, though Modesto High has remained large.
We fully acknowledge that the district cannot adjust boundaries too frequently or it would be chaotic for everyone. Still, the district hasn't stayed on top of this issue like it should.
After Johansen opened 20 years ago, Downey was the struggling smaller school. And after Enochs opened, it was Beyer. Now, Davis High is by far the smallest and, while district leaders don't like the term, it is perceived as getting stepchild treatment compared to the larger, newer campuses.
Some of this frustration over Davis surfaced in fall 2011, when the school board considered and ultimately approved building a football stadium at Gregori while Davis waited for basic upgrades. Now the Davis High principal is among those on the firing list for the end of this school year, a situation that has the potential to further erode morale or at least increase anxiety.
It would be easier for Modesto if the school board makes the attendance boundary changes effective next fall and can present a reasonable argument to Sac-Joaquin section leaders that Modesto schools will be better balanced in size and should be kept together for the realignment that is scheduled to go into effect 2014-15.
But the more important reasons to balance the student population across the high schools is to assure that there is parity in academic opportunities, first, and then extracurricular activites.