California public school enrollment continues to decline

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Every weekday morning, Sharde Mercier drives her daughters, Aleeah, 8, and Alyssa, 10, past their old neighborhood school in the Alum Rock Union School District to attend a charter school in San Jose. .

She is not the only one struggling to send her children to school.

Increasingly, Bay Area families — rich and poor — are choosing not to attend nearby public schools in favor of charter, private, or homeschooling. Many are sticking to the alternative schooling options that worked for them during last year‘s school closures at the height of the COVID pandemic. At the same time, families are moving as housing and other costs soar, and those who remain have fewer children than their parents’ generation.

It all adds up to a crisis in public schools that is resulting in funding shortfalls, teacher layoffs, closed campuses and the loss of identity for generations-old neighborhood schools.

“School districts are going to have to make tough choices,” said Jonathan Kaplan, senior policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center. What school leaders should worry about, he said, is that children who chose not to attend public schools during the pandemic might not return.

In the 2020-2021 school year, all but five of California’s 58 counties saw declining enrollment as schools shifted to remote learning. This week, Golden State educators are gearing up for new enrollment numbers for 2021-22 — to be released Monday — to find out if the great COVID exodus from California public schools has continued, even as cases drop. and the children are back in class.

The pandemic’s decline over the past year has compounded a drop in years of enrollment in the neighborhood’s public schools, according to a Bay Area News Group analysis of California Department of Education data.

Since the 2016-2017 school year, public school enrollment in California has fallen nearly 3.6% and the total drop was 4.2% in the Bay Area. Statewide enrollment in 2020-21 was the lowest in two decades. The drop was even steeper for traditional schools, offset by a 15% statewide increase in enrollment at charter schools, which are independent, tuition-free public schools.

In the Bay Area, enrollment has fallen more than 10% in one in four school districts — including Alum Rock Union, San Jose Unified, Cupertino Union, San Lorenzo Unified and Palo Alto Unified — since the 2016-17 school year .

The decline was concentrated in the lower grades, while the number of students in grades 9 to 12 increased slightly. Fremont Unified was one of the few districts to add students, though growing by less than a tenth of 1% since 2016-17.

For Mercier, the choice to leave the school in his neighborhood was not easy. But she said they didn’t feel comfortable being a black family in a predominantly Latino school district and wanted a school that would celebrate its children’s culture and make them feel included.

“I could really see that my kids were affected by not being around other people like them,” Mercier said.

When she visited Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep a month before schools closed due to the pandemic, she was immediately won over by the school’s cultural diversity and parental involvement.

Rita Tuialu’ulu’u and her husband opted out of sending their young children to Oakland public schools, but found a different solution two years ago: homeschooling. The couple, who have since moved to San Bruno, cannot afford a private school and do not trust the public school system to keep their children safe or accurately teach them about their Latino and Polynesian cultures.

More than 11% of families nationwide were homeschooling at least one of their children in fall 2021, up from 5.4% in spring 2020, according to a US Census Bureau report.

“Most people think homeschooling is a luxury,” she said. “I don’t agree. My husband and I both work full time, we’re not rich and we have average jobs. But we’re educated and have the will to do it.

As parents explore their options, the exodus means traditional public schools face vast challenges, socially and financially. Schools are scrambling to track student departures and lament the loss of neighborhood children and involved parents who bring diversity to the classroom.

Faced with empty classrooms and too little money to pay for them, districts are making tough choices.

San Francisco Unified sent hundreds of potential layoff notices to staff members to balance a $125 million shortfall. West Contra Costa School District May Cut Staff Contracts, Student Programs amid a $42 million deficit and a projected shortfall of $151 million over the next two years.

Phased school closures in Oakland drew national attention when two teachers went on hunger strike and parents, students and educators rallied to protest, but the district is far from alone to be forced to take such drastic measures.

Alum Rock merged Clyde L. Fischer Middle School and Lee Mathson Middle School last year. Hayward Unified is closing Strobridge Elementary School and Bowman Elementary School at the end of the school year, potentially with more to come.

Even top performing schools long sought after as destinations suffer. Cupertino Union is closing two elementary schools and consolidating another in the fall.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 10: Clyde L. Fischer Middle School is pictured, Thursday, March 10, 2022, in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Heads of state and lawmakers are scrambling to help school leaders deal with looming financial distress as enrollment dips.

Schools have been allowed to use their pre-pandemic enrollment and attendance rates to calculate their funding needs for the past two school years, so many districts have not yet been penalized for attendance declines and could stand to lose millions when pandemic relief ends this fall.

California is one of only six states in the country to fund schools based on attendance, but new legislation could change that. Even though enrollment rates are falling, the proposed funding change will help districts that are badly suffering from chronic absenteeism. It is estimated that the change could give schools an additional $3 billion a year.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 26: Oakland educators, students and family members participate in an Oakland Movement march and rally against school closures around Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, on Saturday, March 26, 2022. The rally began at La Escuelita, one of five schools that will be closed this school year, followed by a march around Lake Merritt and concluded at City Hall. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Schools, regardless of their socio-economic status or academic performance, suffer from student departures. But the full picture of where children go and why is different in every community.

A survey by this news agency of more than a dozen Bay Area school districts found that children in Cupertino were leaving more often for private schools or to leave the country, while children in Alum Rock were mostly moving to other public schools. But the impact on the districts has been almost the same.

In Cupertino, where many families can afford to send their children to expensive school programs and live next door to high-performing schools, enrollment has fallen 15.8% over the past five years. In San Jose’s Alum Rock neighborhood, where the majority of children get a free, reduced lunch and schools are performing poorly, enrollment fell 15.3% during the same period.

Alum Rock Superintendent Hilaria Bauer said most students are leaving due to the high cost of living, but student enrollment has “been very sketchy over the past two years as families are parties in a hurry with little or no time to provide reasons due to the pandemic”.

Cupertino Union School District spokeswoman Erin Lindsey said families were leaving due to rising real estate prices and rents they couldn’t afford.

But parents say there’s something else behind the departures: tensions with the school board during the pandemic.

SUNNYVALE, CA – MARCH 23: After returning home from school, Sachin Singh, a 3rd grade student at Sunnyvale Stratford School, does his homework on March 23, 2022 in Sunnyvale, California. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Raj Singh was one of the first parents in the Cupertino School District to rally against the school board for the delay in returning students to campus in the spring of 2020. He transferred his son, Sachin, 9, to the private school in Stratford during the pandemic because the boy was struggling with home learning.

“I was working downstairs and he was coming downstairs trying to do an art project and he was crying,” said Singh, who pays more than $2,000 a month for a private school. “I was like, ‘This is crazy. People move to Cupertino because they want the best schools in the country academically.

He said nine of the 12 kids in his neighborhood also don’t attend schools in the Cupertino district. Singh, a “big supporter of the public school system”, prefers income diversity in public schools and wants to roll back Sachin. But now her son has friends in Stratford and doesn’t want to leave.

CUPERTINO, CA – MARCH 23: Melody Hall helps her 11-year-old homeschooled son Kai learn math at their home on March 23, 2022, in Cupertino, California. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

After moving to a nearby neighborhood, Melody Hall was looking forward to her 11-year-old son Kai, who has autism, going to an elementary school in Cupertino in August 2021.

But she said he was frequently bullied, so she enrolled him in a virtual charter school and also home schools.

“I’m very safe here and I don’t have to worry about this guy anymore,” Kai said, sitting in his bedroom in front of a laptop on a desk filled with an anthill, a calendar with his homework to the house and Legos. Hall was able to stay home with Kai to guide him through his homework, but she will soon have to return to the office. She makes arrangements so she doesn’t have to send Kai back to the neighborhood school.

Mike Fine, general manager of the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which helps districts manage their finances, said schools should adapt to changing student needs — offering smaller class sizes, child care , STEM activities and other academic options – to set families back against competition from non-traditional schools.

The solution is not to close a school when student enrollment is too low, Fine said. “It’s to find out where the kids (went) and pick them up.”

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