Small school? Big future problems


When Orcutt Academy opened its doors 11 years ago, it drew interest in the community for its small student body, close teacher-student relationships, and strong academics. As the school gained momentum, it consistently held a waitlist of 100-to-200 aspiring freshmen each year. The school offered a unique experience and clearly the community wanted in on it.


Mrs. Kim Domingues, Orcutt Academy Administrative Assistant, has been working at the school since 2008, when the school first opened. Domingues remembers parents being excited about the school opening because of its small size and heavy focus on academics. The school originally started with a 100-count student body, as only a freshman class was admitted in 2008. This number has evolved closer to 600 students, and will only be increasing in the upcoming 2020-2021 school year. 


According to the Dean of Students, Mr. Josh Ostini, the annual “student lottery” took place on February 5th of this year, admitting 180 students, and waitlisting 0. These numbers, to some, are shocking for two reasons: 1) The goal for many years was to admit 150 students and 2) There is no longer a wait list. 


Domingues recalls previous years where the waitlist ranged anywhere from 60-100 students on average. “It’s never been anything like this. This is the first year I’ve seen it where we have the lottery and no waitlist.”


While this is the largest freshman class to be admitted, the school is still seeing a noticeable drop in interest. Administrators attribute a large part of this to enrollment trends. Ostini explains, “In the state of California we have seen declining enrollment happening. People are leaving the state, not just in Orcutt, but Santa Maria schools as well.” 


However, Orcutt Academy’s waitlist contained 127-students last year even though they admitted 175 students (again, 25 students beyond the previously projected 150-range). This statistic leaves room for many to think the issue is larger than families moving out of state.  


Part of the issue may be the loss of the small campus environment. While Orcutt Academy is still one of the smaller schools in town, it has definitely grown since the beginning. OA is now larger than the Orcutt-based private Catholic school, St. Joseph’s. 


The school has been increasing class size but nothing else. This only hurts the campus’s already prominent facility issues. Domingues agreed, “Our facilities have gotten worse because our school has grown, and [because of] how well the school has done, [it] certainly shows we need better facilities.” Dominuges is right; the school has gained a strong reputation in the community for sports involvement, robotics, Poetry Out Loud, and even the arts. Yet nearly every room on campus has remained untouched since its 2010 takeover of the then May Grisham Elementary School Campus.


Furthermore, Orcutt does not plan to hire more teaching staff, which means there will likely be a class size increase, especially in required classes like English 9 and Algebra 1. Last year the District opened up an additional English 9 course, bringing class averages to approximately 30. However, this year with the addition of more students, there are no plans to increase staffing.


The original written charter had a set cap on class size. The 2009 charter reads, “In grades 4-12, with the exception of Physical Education, Team Sports, and selected Career Technical Education courses, it will be the intent of Orcutt Academy not to exceed 30 students per class.”  This is common throughout high schools in the area. According to one Righetti administrator, their classes are set at 36 students. Since the writing of the charter, this clause has been removed entirely. This means the district has a lot of freedom when it comes to increasing class size. This year, OAHS students and staff can attest that class sizes have increased to upwards of 35 per class.


Scott Gelotti, Orcutt Educators Association Vice President and OAHS English teacher believes that increasing the student body on campus takes away from the school’s original values. Gelotti says, “The founders believed the school was different because it was so small, increasing the school size goes against the core values of Orcutt Academy, as the school has since more than quadrupled in size.”


Ostini believes allowing more students to enter Orcutt Academy can be a good thing, as it leaves room for students out of the district boundaries to attend.  


A larger motive, however, is obviously funding. With the district receiving an estimated $11,000 annually per student per year, according to the United States Census Bureau,  the 15 additional freshmen admitted could potentially increase the district’s students spending budget by $165,000. 


While increasing the incoming freshman class size allows more prospective students to attend the school, it also takes away the selling point that brought so many families to the school: Orcutt Academy is a small school. 


It is important for the school to remain small, in order to foster the strong student teacher bonds, high academic standing, and maintain a good reputation that the school is starting to lose as the waitlist dwindles. The school needs to have a set cap on class size and size of the student body in order to offer the education level promised to current and incoming students. 


For more information on the lottery and class size check out these articles: