Enrollment in California public schools dropped to its lowest level in more than 20 years, and local districts are faced with tough decisions about how to deal with the declines.
The pandemic and rising housing prices were blamed for much of the drop in the numbers released by the state Monday, April 11.
But few administrators seemed shocked by the numbers because they followed trends from the past several years; districts have prepared for what they’re seeing.
“We continue to graduate more students than enroll in kindergarten each year,” James Evans, a principal on special assignment in the Temecula Valley Unified School District, wrote in an email.
Ryan Burris, a spokesman for Capistrano Valley Unified School District, said Orange County’s largest district was not caught off-guard.
“For us, it’s been more about looking ahead and putting a budget together that is responsible and we can plan accordingly. So we’re not jumping off the cliff one year,” Burris said.
The state Department of Education’s new 2021-2022 school year data shows student enrollment dropped by 110,000 students, a 1.8% dip from last year, but less than the 161,000 decrease the year before.
In Los Angeles, while enrollment had been on the decline long before the pandemic for the nation’s second-largest school district, the rate of loss has accelerated, dropping by nearly 48,600 students over the past two years. LA Unified’s overall enrollment this year is just over 548,300.
There are nearly 10,000 fewer kindergartners in the district now as compared to two years ago.
Also of particular note, the class of 2032, whose students were in kindergarten when the pandemic hit in 2020 and are now second graders, has seen its enrollment drop by more than 18,000 students (31%). The class of 2032 had 57,792 students two years ago; that number fell to 39,654 this year.
Likewise, the class of 2023 – students who were in the ninth grade when the pandemic hit and are currently in grade 11 – lost more than 7,600 students, or 15% of its class, during this period.
It’s unclear how much of the drop in enrollment is due to general declines in birth rates and families moving out of Los Angeles to more affordable communities, and how much of the loss was driven by the frustration of some parents felt over the district’s distance learning program, delayed school reopenings and its handling of other pandemic-related matters.
Veronica Arreguín, the district’s chief strategy officer, said in a statement that the district is developing a strategic plan to draw families back to LA Unified.
“Enrollment changes seem to reflect the needs of families and students as a result of the pandemic, with 12th graders needing additional time to complete graduation requirements and an influx of kindergarten students who might have been enrolled last year in our exemplary kindergarten and transitional kindergarten programs ,” she said.
In Long Beach, enrollment rates have dropped for nearly seven years in a row.
Since the 2015-2016 academic year, Long Beach Unified School District has reported a 13% total loss in the student population, according to Department of Education data.
LBUSD also reported decreases in every racial cohort excluding Native American students and students who have two or more racial identities.
But a significant portion of the enrollment decline aligns with the outbreak of COVID-19. Since the 2019-20 fall semester preceding the pandemic and the first quarantine, LBUSD’s enrollment rates have dropped by 6.15%.
“We’re well aware of the continuing trend toward decreased enrollment statewide and in our local schools,” Chris Eftychiou, LBUSD’s public information director, said in an email Monday, April 11.
Enrollment has also dropped in the smaller South Bay public school districts of Los Angeles County. Manhattan Beach Unified had a 10% drop since 2019-20; Redondo Beach Unified enrollment fell by 5% during the same period; Torrance Unified School District also saw a 5% drop.
And, like LAUSD and the rest of California, the Torrance school district — the South Bay’s largest with more than 23,000 students — has experienced declining enrollment over the past three years, said spokesperson Tammy Khan in an email.
TUSD is taking steps to reverse the downward trend, said Khan, including Spanish dual-language immersion programs and a partnership with a dual-enrollment partnership with a local community college.
In Orange County – where public school enrollment has fallen 7.6% over the past five years – several of the biggest school districts have seen the number of kids in public school drop precipitously. At the county’s second-biggest district, Santa Ana Unified, enrollment is 16.9% less today than it was five years ago, and is off 5.3% over the past year.
At Garden Grove Unified, enrollment is down 10.6% from five years ago and 3.8% from last year. At Capistrano Unified, the county’s biggest district, the drop was less severe; 6.8% over the past five years and less than 1% from a year ago. The one big district where enrollment has grown – Irvine Unified, where enrollment has grown 4.2% over the past five years – also has seen its population grow as a result of land annexation.
Orange County educators weren’t surprised to see the declining enrollment numbers. It’s been a trend more than a decade in the making.
“We have been planning on lower enrollment based on the trends we’ve seen,” said Burris, the spokesman for the Capistrano Unified School District, which saw its student population drop by 7.2%, from 53,878 students in the 2015-16 year to 49,974 this school year.
Enrollment affects the amount of money school districts get from the state, so with significantly fewer students, districts like Capistrano Unified need to consider reducing staff and consolidating resources – including closing down campuses, Burris said. It could also impact how many students are in a classroom. Thanks to state and federal COVID-19 funds, many districts have been able to reduce that ratio – at least temporarily.
But the pandemic also has exacerbated the public school flight in many districts.
“COVID played a huge role in pushing that along faster,” Burris said.
Many families – upset over state mandates and safety protocols like masks and vaccines – turned to home-schooling and some even left the state to avoid California’s regulations.
It’s unclear when a COVID-19 state vaccine mandate for students will go into effect, but once it does, Burris said “it will impact our enrollment. We don’t know to what degree.”
In Santa Ana Unified, where the Latino community was heavily affected by the pandemic, COVID-19 has not been a significant issue in the district’s enrollment decline, said spokesman Fermin Leal.
Instead, the lead causes behind a drop in enrollment, he said, have been a declining birth rate and the high cost of living, particularly the high cost of housing.
“We’re seeing people leaving our region because it’s become unaffordable,” Leal said.
At its peak, during the 2002-03 school year, Santa Ana Unified had 60,973 students, according to a district report. Today, the district has 44,102 students. It’s Orange County’s second-largest district.
Santa Ana Unified hopes to keep its newer lower student-to-teacher ratio but will possibly look to consolidate more elementary schools with middle schools, he said. In recent years, the district has closed several elementary campuses and created K-8 schools.
Riverside and San Bernardino counties
Enrollment fell in each of the last two years at San Bernardino City Unified School District, one of the Inland Empire’s largest, from 53,037 students in 2019-20 to 51,013 in 2021-22, state education data show.
District spokesperson Ginger Ontiveros said the patterns that are driving the decline statewide are in play in San Bernardino as well.
A declining birth rate, for example, is leading fewer youngsters to enroll in elementary schools, Ontiveros said.
“The pandemic put greater economic pressure on families,” she added, causing some to move out of the area.
“The high cost of housing is driving people eastward and out of state,” she said.
In another of the Inland area’s large public school systems, Corona-Norco Unified, enrollment fell from 52,557 in 2019-20 to 50,889 this year.
Enrollment has been sliding for seven years “as families in the cities of Norco and Corona have matured and many students have aged out of our system,” said Superintendent Sam Buenrostro, in an emailed statement.
However, Buenrostro said the pandemic has accelerated the slide.
“We also know that parents are waiting longer in planning for children and having fewer children than before,” he wrote.
Enrollment fell for the second year in a row at Temecula Valley Unified School District campuses, which serve a little more than 28,000 students — about 5% fewer than two years ago, state data show.
“In a community like Temecula, higher home prices also bring in more families moving into their second or third house,” Evans, the Temecula Valley Unified principal, wrote. “Many of these families have older children that are aged out of the school system.”
In the Redlands Unified School District, enrollment fell from 21,062 in 2019-20 to 20,352 in 2020-21, state data show, then slid a little more this year to 20,162.
District spokesperson Christine Stephens wrote in an email that since the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year enrollment has been “slowly climbing back to expected levels” in response to district initiatives.
Staff writer Kayla Jimenez contributed to this article.