While Tacoma's overall population grew slightly in the past decade, the number of residents under age 18 dropped 8.5 percent — a net loss of 4,253 youngsters that is contributing to an enrollment crisis in the Tacoma School District.

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TACOMA — Glen and Sarah Jackson love the fact that two of their daughters, one in kindergarten and the other in first grade, attend a small elementary school a half-block from home in a culturally diverse neighborhood the family regards as friendly and safe.

“People know one another. They help you out,” Sarah Jackson said. “And for being in the city, it feels quiet.”

Perhaps too quiet.

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Although the 2010 census showed Tacoma’s overall population grew 2.5 percent in the past decade, the number of residents younger than 18 dropped 8.5 percent — a loss of 4,253 youngsters that one School Board member says is contributing to “cardiac arrest” in the Tacoma School District.

McKinley Elementary, which the Jackson girls attend, is one of two schools targeted for closure in the district this year. Additional cuts — either in curriculum or schools — are possible as the enrollment decline continues to be felt.

Although Tacoma had the state’s biggest loss of youngsters, dozens of other Washington cities also saw their under-18 population decline, or — as in the case of Seattle — rise more slowly than their adult population.

A movement of young families out of central cities is “a three-decade tendency,” said Yi Zhao, a demographer with the state Office of Financial Management.

The pattern she sees: “A lot of young people move into Washington state for school or jobs, so they tend to arrive in the metro areas. But when they’re ready to start families, the tendency is to move out to the suburbs to get more affordable housing, maybe have a backyard.”

Among the census findings:

• In raw numbers, Tacoma’s loss of children more than doubled that of Spokane, which had the next-largest decline, losing 1,831 youngsters.

• While Tacoma’s child population dropped, Pierce County’s increased by 4 percent, with the largest gains south and east of Tacoma.

• South Hill, a community most state residents might have trouble even placing on a map, had Pierce County’s largest such increase, gaining 5,695 children. If incorporated, South Hill would rank as the state’s 20th-largest city, more populous than Edmonds, Kirkland, Lynnwood or Olympia.

• The loss of children in Tacoma was reflected across nearly every ethnic group, with increases only among Latinos and those of mixed race.

Painful closures coming

The resulting drop in school enrollment in Tacoma, coupled with reduced state support for education, has the school district facing a projected $56 million budget shortfall over three years.

School Board members are to vote Thursday on closing the two elementaries — part of the district’s budget-cutting efforts that would also eliminate more than 50 jobs and cut an array of programs.

Superintendent Art Jarvis proposed closing Foss High School, the district’s smallest, and three elementary schools, each of which has fewer than 300 students.

But after a community outcry, Foss and one of the grade schools were spared, leaving only 103-year-old McKinley, about a mile south of the Tacoma Dome, and Wainwright, in Fircrest, on the chopping block.

Supporters of both schools turned out at public hearings last week, with some parents saying the schools’ low enrollment — the factor that put them on the closure list — has been the key to helping their children succeed.

But district officials say they have few options.

“There’s a lot of passion and emotion, and we understand that completely,” School Board President Kurt Miller said, “but at the end of the day … we’re forced to make some cuts.”

School Board member Jim Dugan said closing schools never is popular, but added, “Imagine you’re treating a guy for cardiac arrest and he says, ‘I really don’t like the idea of you tearing my shirt.’ That’s the situation we’re in now. We’re in cardiac arrest.”

Other schools closing

Enrollment declines already have forced other districts to close schools.

Seattle Public Schools closed a dozen in the past decade, due to lower enrollment, budget shortfalls and an effort to make better use of school buildings. Now, with enrollment starting to rise again, the district is reopening two closed schools and adding three others.

Shoreline, which lost 1,786 children in the past decade, closed two elementaries. Bremerton, which lost 1,762 kids, closed one.

Demographer Les Kendrick, who analyzes population trends for Tacoma schools, said it’s not clear how much of the city’s loss of young residents was caused by “out-migration” — families leaving — and how much was simply youngsters growing up and not being replaced by newcomers.

The decline already has started to reverse itself, Kendrick said, as births in Tacoma have risen for the past several years.

But those babies can’t grow up fast enough to solve the crisis Tacoma is facing — particularly at its high schools, which are operating at 81 percent of capacity, a number expected to drop next year to 76 percent.

South Hill climbs

Among Washington cities that gained children, the largest boost was in Renton, which picked up 10,204 youngsters, a 93.5 percent increase that reflected sizable population gains in South King County.

In Pierce County, while Tacoma weighs which schools to close, South Hill has been building schools, opening a high school, a junior high and two elementary schools in the past decade.

The two elementaries, Carson and Edgerton, both opened in 2007 and this year have a combined enrollment of more than 1,500.

Mike Larson, president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Association of Realtors, said the area’s growth stems from a combination of factors, including a greater availability and affordability of larger homes with modern conveniences, and some families feeling priced out of similar developments in King County.

In addition, Larson said, young families choosing the suburbs over cities often are looking for areas perceived to offer better schools and less crime.

South Hill, an unincorporated part of the Puyallup School District, had a 2010 population of 52,431 — more than 15,000 greater than the city of Puyallup.

Immediately south of South Hill is Graham, another growing unincorporated area, which gained 4,026 young residents in the decade, a whopping 152 percent increase.

“We kind of wanted to get out of the city, where you’re not stuck in traffic everywhere you go,” said Casi Mundell, 33. She and her husband, Mike, and two young sons moved last fall from South Tacoma to a new subdivision bordering Graham and South Hill.

“For what we paid, it would have been next to impossible to get as much in Tacoma, unless we were in a less desirable neighborhood,” Mundell said.

Tacoma is home

Back in Tacoma, Sarah Jackson, who grew up in the Hilltop area, said she feels safer now than when she was a teenager — a sense backed up by Tacoma police statistics that show violent crime dropped 19 percent and property crimes declined 24 percent in the past decade.

If the Jacksons were to leave Tacoma, she said, it might be because they might have lower utility rates in an outlying community, as her sister in Spanaway does.

But Sarah Jackson says she’d rather stay put.

“I like the feel of being in Tacoma,” she said. “I tell my kids I was born at St Joe’s [St. Joseph Medical Center] and they were born at St. Joe’s. And they like to talk about that. It’s a connection.”

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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