Look back at school district history helps understand how it got where it is

History presentation prompted by proposal to send Cayucos students to another high school

ktanner@thetribunenews.comAugust 15, 2013 

The new Hesperian School, above in 1907, replaced a previous school on the hill above the intersection of Main Street and Burton Drive (at that time, still known as Lee Street). It was one of several schools supported by early town residents prior to the establishment of Coast Joint Union High School in 1921, according to historian Geneva Hamilton’s ‘Where the Highway Ends.’ The book says the Cambria high school provided schooling for Cayucos students from its beginning, a point that’s been in contention lately.


How do you wrap up 130 years of school-district history in less than 45 minutes? Vera Wallen did just that June 8 for the Coast Unified School District Board of Trustees.

Wallen has a leg up on the district’s background: She was district superintendent from 1988 through 1997, including the unification of the elementary, middle and high school districts in July 1996.

Wallen’s extensive research through materials at the school district, county Office of Education and at public libraries was, in part, designed to answer some questions raised after some Cayucos parents filed a formal petition in early 2012 to have their teens attend Morro Bay High School, rather than Coast Union High School in Cambria. The petition was denied Oct. 10 by the County Committee of School District Organization; proponents appealed that decision to the state a month later. A final decision is still pending.

Why were Cayucos students attending a Cambria school? Wallen noted two reasons in her data-dense, six-page written report.

First, Cayucos has no high school. Second, from 1880 to 1963, the town “was effectively cut off from Morro Bay” because Toro Creek was “more like a river” in those days. When Whale Rock Dam was built east of town in 1963, reducing the strong creek and stream flow, the route to Morro Bay improved considerably.

“One of the odd things about this research has been recognizing the differences between small and large schools, districts and towns,” Wallen said later. “Morro Bay is clearly a large high school in a large district. Cambria and Cayucos are not. That makes a difference to the students.”

In her research, she learned the Cayucos district began in 1881, and ranching families formed Cambria’s first high school class in 1891 in one room of the Cambria School (near the intersections of streets now named Main Street and Burton Drive).

Wallen discovered that at least one Cayucos student was in that first class. The teen apparently roomed near Cambria with her aunt because transportation between towns in those days (by horse, wagon or on foot) was substantially more difficult and time consuming than it is today.

By 1905, she wrote, San Luis Obispo County had 125 schools, most of them one-room facilities.

In 1924, the district bought the present high school site, adding onto it later. Dorms were built a year later near the creek so out-of-town students, including those from Cayucos, could live on campus.

In 1925, seven students graduated from Coast High, which had 37 students in all. By 1938, the school had 50 students; by 1950, there were 70. By 1980, there were 240 high schoolers at Coast.

Eventually, most small districts consolidated with larger districts, often at the behest of the state. By 1994, there were only seven high schools in the state smaller than Coast, and only 13 that had daily average attendance of from 350 to 700.

There were 350 students at Coast in 1998, and 102 were from Cayucos, Wallen wrote. In the 2012-2013 school year, there were 239 students at Coast Union High School, and 35 of them had Cayucos addresses.

Various studies have been done about unifying Cambria and Cayucos schools, along with smaller schools in other areas. Some unifications happened and stuck, such as bringing together the Cambria and San Simeon districts in 1920 and Cambria and Harmony in 1930. Other mergers were done and undone and then done again before the tiniest districts faded away.

Wallen said in the 1960s, the state “went on a tear about unifications,” and there was “a lot of pressure” to combine districts. “They wanted one district per county,” she explained.

For instance, after the Fairview district, the southernmost in the coastal school zone, had been sliced and diced since 1901 into various other districts, the county formally declared it “lapsed” in 1979. That final action displaced 1.67 students, a figure that baffled Wallen and amused the trustees listening to her.

Pacific Valley annexed into Coast High School in 1959, but separated later with 35 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

In 1972, Cayucos and two smaller districts consolidated with Cambria to form Coast Joint Union High School District. The elementary districts remained separate.

“Sharing of services between the districts was actually going on quite a bit,” Wallen told the board. “The ranchers worked together, saw each other in town. Later, there was a lot of sharing of superintendents,” a trend she experienced as superintendent concurrently of the Cambria Elementary, Coast Union High School and Cayucos districts.

Transfers, too, happened a lot, when parents wanted their children to attend a school outside the district in which the family was residing, often because the adults worked elsewhere.

While Coast’s board approves transfers into San Luis Coastal Unified School District, the latter district usually won’t accept them.

It’s not yet known if the state will uphold or deny the Cayucos appeal. But Wallen said she hopes the information she’s ferreted out will help everybody understand better why things are the way they are.

Follow Kathe Tanner on Twitter at @CambriaReporter.

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