California public school enrollment continues to decline

Every weekday morning, Sharde Mercier drives her daughters, Aleah, 8, and Alyssa, 10, from 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 who is going out of her way to send her children to school.

More and more, Bay Area families – rich and poor – are dropping out of nearby public schools in favor of charter, private or home schools. Many are sticking with 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 rising as housing and other costs go up, and those who stay have fewer children than their parent’s generation.

All this is adding to a crisis in public schools leading to paucity of funds, retrenchment of teachers, closed campuses and the lost identity of generations-old neighborhood schools.

“School districts are going to have to make some tough choices,” said Jonathan Kaplan, a senior policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center. He said school leaders should worry that children who dropped out of public schools during the pandemic may not return.

During the 2020-21 school year, all but five of California’s 58 counties experienced a drop in enrollment as schools turned to distance learning. This week, Golden State teachers prepare for new 2021-22 enrollment figures — to be released on Monday — to find out whether the great COVID exodus from California’s public schools continues, even as That matters decline and the child is back in the classroom.

Last year’s fallout from the pandemic worsened a one-year drop in neighborhood public school enrollment, according to a Bay Area newsgroup analysis of California Department of Education data.

Since the 2016-17 school year, enrollment in California public schools has declined by about 3.6%, and the overall decline in the Bay Area was 4.2%. Enrollment across the state in 2020-21 was the lowest in two decades. The decline was even sharper for traditional schools, offset by a 15% increase in enrollment in charter schools, which are tuition-free, independently run public schools.

In the Bay Area, enrollment declined by 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 Is.

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 which students were added, although it has been growing by less than a tenth of 1% since 2016-17.

For Mercier, the choice to leave his neighborhood school was not an easy one. But she said they didn’t feel comfortable as a black family in a predominantly Latino school district, and wanted a school that celebrated her children’s culture and made them feel included.

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

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

Rita Tuyalu’Ulu’u and her husband opted to send their young children to Oakland public schools, but two years ago landed on a different solution: home school. The couple, who have since moved to San Bruno, cannot afford private school, and they rely on the public school system to keep their children safe or to properly teach their children about their Latino and Polynesian cultures. do not.

According to the US Census Bureau, more than 11% of households in the country were home-schooling at least one of their children in 2021, compared to 5.4% in spring 2020. report good,

“Most people assume that homeschooling is a luxury,” she said. “Sorry I disagree. My husband and I both work full time, we’re not rich and we have an average job. But we’re educated and we aspire to do it.”

While parents explore their options, migration means that traditional public schools are facing great challenges both socially and economically. Schools are scrambling to track student departures and mourn the loss of neighborhood children and parents who have diversified the classroom.

Faced with empty classes and too few dollars to pay for them, districts are making tough choices.

San Francisco Unified sent hundreds of potential layoff notices to employees to balance the $125 million loss. West Contra Costa school district may cut staff contractors and student programs amid losses of $42 million and an estimated $151 million reduction over the next two years.

Phased school closures in Oakland attracted national attention when two teachers went on hunger strikes and parents, students and teachers rallied in protest, but the district is far from the only one to be forced to take such drastic action.

Alum Rock last year released the Clyde L. Fisher Middle School and Lee Mathson Middle School were merged. Hayward Unified School is closing Strowbridge Elementary School and Bowman Elementary School at the end of the year, potentially more to come.

Even high-performing schools have long been in demand as destinations suffer. The Cupertino union is closing two elementary schools and consolidating another fall.

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

State leaders and legislators are scrambling to help school leaders tide over the financial crisis as enrollment declines.

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OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 26: Oakland School teachers, students and family members participate in an Oakland Movement Against School Closure March and Rally around Lake Merritt on Saturday, March 26, 2022 in Oakland, California. The rally started in La Escuelita. , one of five schools that will close this school year, followed by a march around Lake Merritt and concluding at City Hall. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Schools were 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 yet to be penalized for declining attendance and Millions may be at risk of being lost during the pandemic. Relief ends this fall.

California is one of only six states in the country that funds schools based on attendance, but new law may change that. Even if the enrollment rate is low, the proposed change in funding will help districts that suffer from chronic absenteeism. It is estimated that the change could cost schools an additional $3 billion per year.

Students suffer from school dropouts, regardless of socio-economic status or school performance. But the full picture of where children are going and why looks different in every community.

A survey of more than a dozen Bay Area school districts by this news organization found that Cupertino children are often dropped off to private schools or out of the country, while Ellum Rock children mostly attend other public schools. go. But the impact on the districts remained almost the same.

In Cupertino, where many families can afford to send children to high-priced educational programs and live next to high-performing schools, enrollment has dropped by 15.8% over the past five years. In San Jose’s Alum Rock neighborhood, where most children qualify for free and reduced lunches and schools are underperforming, enrollment declined by 15.3% over the same period.

Ellum Rock superintendent Hilaria Bauer said most students drop out because of the high cost of living, but student enrollment “has been very low for the past two years as families have had little time at any time to tell because of the pandemic.” left with.”

Cupertino Union School District spokeswoman Erin Lindsay said families were moving because of rising home prices and unaffordable rent.

But parents say something else is behind the departure: tensions with the school board during the pandemic.

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Sunnyvale, CA – March 23: After coming home from his school, Sachin Singh, a third grade student at Stratford School in Sunnyvale, does his homework on March 23, 2022 in Sunnyvale, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area Newsgroup)

Raj Singh was one of the first parents of a Cupertino school district to rally against the school board for delaying returning students to campus in the spring of 2020. He transferred his son, Sachin, 9, to the private Stratford school during the pandemic as the boy was struggling. learning at home

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

He said that even nine out of 12 children in his block do not attend schools in the Cupertino district. Singh, “a big believer in the public school system”, prefers income diversification in public schools and wants to take Sachin back. But now his son has friends in Stratford and doesn’t want to leave.

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

After moving to a nearby neighborhood, Melody Hall waits for her 11-year-old son, Kai, who has autism, to attend Cupertino elementary school in August 2021.

But she said she was often bullied so she enrolled her in a virtual charter school and home schools as well.

“Here I’m pretty safe and I don’t have to worry about that guy anymore,” Kai said while sitting in his room at a desk full of ant farms in front of a laptop, a calendar with his homeschool assignments. And lego. Hall has been able to stay at home with Kai to guide her with schoolwork, but she must return to the office soon. She’s building housing so she doesn’t need to send Kai back to the neighborhood school.

Mike Fine, chief executive officer of the state’s financial crisis and management support team, which helps districts manage their finances, said schools must adjust to the changing needs of students — smaller classrooms, early child care centers. , offer STEM activities and other educational options. The reels return to the families as they face competition with nontraditional schools.

The solution is not to close a school when student enrollment is too small, Fine said. “It’s to find out where the kids (have gone) and bring them back.”

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