School districts scrambling to stop student enrollment drops

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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A new report from the Governor’s Department of Finance predicts significant increases and drops in student enrollment in Southern California counties in the coming years.

In the next five years, student enrollment will go down in Los Angeles County by 61,000 students and by 21,000 students in Orange County. The report says it’s because of lower birth rates and families moving out of those areas.

“This is a big deal for districts,” said University of Southern California School of Education Professor Julie Marsh.

Losing students means losing the per-student state funds that disappear with the students, she said, and that financial pressure is compounded by rising employee pensions and rising costs for some programs such as special education.

School districts are taking several approaches to the enrollment drop. Many are cutting costs and some staff. Some school officials are asking themselves how they can keep students from leaving.

“How do you attract back students from other districts, from privates, from charters? That could lead to a whole bunch of things,” like offering programs that are attractive to some parents, such as dual language immersion programs and arts instruction, Marsh said.

El Segundo Unified doesn’t have a large enrollment decline, but it is adopting an approach that others with declining enrollment are taking: be nimble.

“As we see trends in our enrollment or patterns, what we try to do is respond accordingly,” said El Segundo Superintendent Melissa Moore.

That’s led the schools to add an International Baccalaureate program in 2014 and extended after school child care in the lower grades.

The school district has improved its web site and works with the local newspaper to let the public know about school programs, she said. And that’s made El Segundo schools attractive to parents outside the school district.

About 20 percent of the district’s enrollment is made up of students who live outside of the school district’s boundaries and enroll through an inter-district permit, Moore said, many from nearby Westchester in Los Angeles and the city of Hawthorne.

Rising enrollment is a double-edged sword.

In Riverside County, student enrollment is expected to increase by nearly 9,000 students. In Kern County, student enrollment is expected to go up by about 8,000 students. Those schools can expect more pupil funding, but they’ll also have extra costs.

“The cost of adding new facilities is very expensive,” said Jon McNeil, an assistant superintendent at the Whittier City School District. He’s also president of the Business Services Council with the Association of California School Administrators. In that job he advises school districts that are seeing population increases, new housing developments, and growing student enrollment.

“The current structure of the finances only provides for about half of the building’s cost to come from the builder of the new developments,” he said, referring to the per square foot fee that developers pay school districts when they’re building new homes.