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If You Build It, They Will Come--Eventually--District in Calif. Finds

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In October of last year, the Roseville, Calif., school district found itself in a backward situation by the standards of California and other states with booming school enrollments: It had a new $6.5 million elementary school, but no students to fill it.

Construction on Vencil Brown Elementary School began in 1992 in preparation for the hundreds of children who were expected to move into a housing development planned nearby.

But with the downturn in the economy, the housing development was put on hold, said Jim Roberts, the superintendent of the 5,100-student district north of Sacramento.

"It's rare that it happens in that order," said Lawrence O. Picus, an assistant professor of educational administration and policy at the University of Southern California.

Usually, he said, the houses are built first, and then district officials, faced with crowded schools, have to scramble to place students or to build a school.

Debbie Bettencourt, the district's assistant superintendent for business, said the Roseville City Council had insisted that the school be on the "front end of the planning."

The district and the developers then came to an agreement.

"It's better to have the facility available before the students come in," Ms. Bettencourt said last week. "I think the developers regret that the recession occurred and that their plans had to be postponed."

But she added that construction of the houses has resumed and that the school building has been used over the past year by the district and by Sierra Community College.

Expecting Students

Vencil Brown Elementary may indeed have some students next fall.

"The grading and staking of homes is now starting to move again," Mr. Roberts said. Plans call for about 6,000 houses to be built over three to four years, he said.

The school will open in 1995 if at least 200 elementary school students move into the area. The school was built to serve about 500 students.

If there are not enough students from the area, Mr. Roberts said, school officials will consider changing district boundaries, establishing a magnet school there, or busing children in from overcrowded neighborhoods to use the space.

This year, the district has used Vencil Brown Elementary for meetings and conferences and a few small programs run by two district teachers.

Nine students in an alternative-education program, for example, attend Vencil Brown for three hours a day. And 25 students who are in home schooling meet there once a week for instruction.

Students who are suspended from area middle schools are sent to Vencil Brown for three days of an alternative-learning class.

But those programs all are in the school's media center, said Cynthia Pellegrini, one of the instructors at the school.

Vencil Brown Elementary School is a beautiful facility, Mr. Roberts added, and "I think we will open it [next fall] in some form or capacity."

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