Declining Enrollment Shapes Future of Local Public Schools
A new WSCUHSD demographic study reports on the historical trend and projects it forward
At the February 8th meeting of the high school school board (WSCUHSD), Rob Murray of King Consulting presented a demographic study that the District commissioned that showed a pattern of declining student enrollment starting in the 2000’s and he projected that it will continue out to 2030. He called it “brutally simple math” based on the underlying demographics of the population.
As of October 2022, Analy High School had 1,467 students; Laguna High School had 75 students; a total of 1,542 students were enrolled in the district. The study projected that by 2029-30 enrollment could be down to 1,224, which is 318 fewer students.
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Here are some of the key points:
School enrollment in the district “peaked in the 2000’s and it has declined every year since.”
“Over the previous decade, since 2013-14, total district enrollment decreased by more than 25%, including a single-year decrease of 10% in the year 2021.”
Here is the decrease shown as a graph from the study:
That’s the historical trend, and the consultants believe the trend will continue over this decade. We’ll get to that shortly.
Apart from demographics, there are two other factors affecting declining enrollment. One is the consolidation in 2021 of El Molino and Analy, which resulted in a gain of 350 or so students at Analy but also a loss of 185 who didn’t go to Analy - a large loss to the District. The other factor is Covid, where some students left when the school went remote and did not return.
The table below from the study shows enrollment by school and total district enrollment. There were 1,800 total students in the District in 2020-21, which was 400 less than 2013. After consolidation, there were only 1,615 students in the District.
Overall Population Has Decreased Since 2000
Does Sebastopol and West County have a growing population? I’d bet that most people who live here think so. Yet, according to this study based on US Census data, the the population of the West County area served by the District has actually decreased by 7.4% from 2000 to 2020.
Here is a chart showing the decrease in population from the study:
The study points out that the numbers for those under the age of 18 has decreased by 34.4% while the population over 18 shows an increase of 0.1%. The report says that “this is the most important factor for the District’s steadily declining enrollment since 2000.” West County’s aging population remains steady, as shown in the graph below, but new families with young children are not coming to the area, likely because of the cost of housing.
The school-eligible population has shrunk by several thousand. This means, of course, that there are fewer students in the 10 elementary and middle school districts, which are feeders into Analy. At the high school, Murray said, “you’ll have a smaller group coming in replacing a larger group leaving.” One example he gave is that 417 seniors graduate but only 361 students enroll as freshman.
The table below shows the decline in attendance over ten years in the feeder districts for Analy. The greatest decline in student enrollment is in districts such as Guerneville, Monte Rio and Forestville that were feeders to El Molino.
In years past, the District estimated 80% of students from its feeder districts would enroll in Analy. This number is key for forecasting the District’s revenue, which is based on enrollment. Because of the recent decreases, the District began using 65% instead to predict future enrollment. However, the study’s recommendation is that 71% is the percentage to use for projecting future enrollment.
Maybe the most interesting chart in the presentation was the one below that shows the distribution of District students based on where they live. A blue dot represents a student currently enrolled in the District. The area in purple represents the West Sonoma County Union High School District’s physical boundaries. Very few students come from the northwest part of the District.
However, 423 students, or 27.1% of all students, live outside the District and 3/4 of them are from Santa Rosa, west of Hwy 101. That’s one in four students who are transfers into the District. The report does not indicate how the number of transfer students has changed over the years.
There are also 128 students who transferred out of WSCUHSD in 2022-23 to another district such as Santa Rosa or Windsor.
The study offered three scenarios for a 7-year out projection, showing high, moderate and low decreases. Below is the moderate projection, which has a decline from the current 1,542 students to 1,224 students in the 2029-30 school year.
The WSCUHSD board and superintendent took the study very seriously, as its projection of declining enrollment must guide them in building the school budget for years to come. Several board members spoke to the importance of doing everything to increase enrollment and make the school more and more attractive to students.
This year, for the first time in quite a while, Analy brought 8th grade kids from feeder schools by bus to the campus and gave them a tour of classes and arranged for them to meet with Analy students. Actively recruiting local students to Analy could make a difference in maintaining enrollment.
The full demographic analysis study can be found linked off the agenda for the board meeting (item A.1). It has much more about the impacts of housing costs (during the 2000-2020 period, the average home price has doubled), the possibility of new home construction bringing families to the area, as well as the racial and ethnic makeup of the community.
Declining enrollment is nationwide
Declining enrollment in public education is a national issue and applies to all levels of education from elementary to higher ed, especially in the wake of Covid. For example, Santa Rosa Junior College reports a decline in student enrollment of about 27% in 2021-22 compared to 2018-29. (ABCNews7 report)
In last summer’s meeting at Analy about school reorganization, Steve Herrington, then head of the Sonoma County Office of Education, said that “school enrollment has been declining 16.2 percent over the last four years in Sonoma County, the third largest decline by county in the state (behind Los Angeles and Ventura counties).” When I asked him by email, why, Harrington replied: “The decline is based on a four-year average: compounded by multiple federal disaster fires (loss of 6000 homes), floods, pandemic and increased housing costs.”
But is there more than just demographics behind these declines? Where are the students who are not going to public schools like Analy going? And why? Private schools, home schooling and online schooling are some of the options that have found new students during and after Covid. (If you are a parent of a student choosing something other than Analy, I’d love to hear from you.)
I asked the consultant Murray if he had numbers for students enrolled elsewhere, for instance, the number of homeschoolers and whether that number has increased because of the pandemic. He said that they based their projections on available data for current public school enrollment. He doesn’t have any data source that could tell him about the other options students have chosen such as homeschooling. He called them “ghost children” and I’ve seen that term used elsewhere for students that aren’t in the system.
Here are a few excerpts from a recent article about a Stanford School of Education study on this topic:
The number of students enrolled in the U.S. public school system has plummeted since 2020, with roughly 1.2 million K-12 students leaving its rolls. Where did they go?…
[T}he researchers found that 14% of students who disenrolled from public school over the three-year period went to private schools, while 26% switched to homeschooling. Another 26% of the loss could simply be attributed to a declining school-age population.
“The states with the largest declines in public school enrollment – California, New York, Illinois – also saw the largest exodus of school-age children,” said [Stanford School of Education professor Thomas] Dee. “So at some level the reduction in public school enrollment wasn’t just a flight from public schools, it was a flight from communities.”
The full Stanford report is “Where the Kids Went: Nonpublic Schooling and Demographic Change During the Pandemic Exodus from Public Schools.”
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I notice that Gravenstein is the only elementary feeder district that has maintained enrollment. Perhaps a study of how that's been accomplished might be instructive?
Compared to where I went to high school, these are such tiny schools. (My high school had more students than all the schools in Sonoma County combined) I suspect the merger of El Molino and Analy will soon not be noticeable.