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September 12, 2006 > Declining enrollment

Declining enrollment

by Steve Warga

We hear it so often these days it's little more than a catch-phrase for all that ails our local school districts. "Declining enrollment;" what does it mean? Who's to blame? How does it affect our schools? In search of some answers, TCV interviewed several local district officials: Dr. Pat Juarequi, superintendent, New Haven Unified School District (NHSUD); Sheila Jordan, superintendent of schools, Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE); and Dr. Dale Vigil, superintendent, Hayward Unified School District (HSUD).

All three face the same challenge to their districts' income. Overall, student enrollments have declined for several years with only some exceptions. And all districts with declining enrollment receive less money for operating income, based on headcounts taken daily throughout the school year. Beyond these similarities, their challenges diverge.

Earlier this year, Vigil and HUSD perched on a hot seat in the glare of publicity after announcing plans to close several schools in an effort to cut costs. Few issues rile local citizens more than the closing of a neighborhood school. HUSD faced withering criticism from a small, vocal army of school kids and parents when they held public comment sessions prior to final decisions. Juarequi and NHUSD find themselves on the same seat this month as they also consider public input in advance of deciding which two schools they'll close by the beginning of the '08 - '09 school year. When income declines enough and projections suggest no relief, districts have no choice but to close schools. There simply isn't enough money to go around.

The causes of HUSD's decline differ from surrounding districts, according to Vigil. He acknowledges that middle and high school students in the district simply do not feel as safe in Hayward schools. It's a problem of perception and reality; the district is working hard to counter both. "If you don't control gangs, then they each start claiming territory; this hallway 'belongs' to one gang, while another controls a different hallway." Vigil insists, "Our schools are 'gang free' zones."

Beyond this, the district wrestles with poor academic performance and aged, neglected facilities. "We're bottom third in academic performance now. Our goal is to be in the top third." The superintendent also notes Hayward's lack of financial support. "We haven't won a bond issue in 40 years," he notes in discussing HUSD's lack of "curb appeal." Parents hesitate to send their kids to schools fronted by parched and patchy grass; faded, peeling paint; and rusted outdoor equipment.

While New Haven School District is not immune from HUSD-type concerns of safety and performance, Juarequi fingers migration to cheaper housing as their number one cause of declining enrollment. "It seems the closer you get to the water, the more expensive are home prices. I came from Elk Grove Unified (near Sacramento) where you can buy a fabulous house for around $400,000. Enrollment there is going up and up. Many are families who moved from the East Bay, but the dads commute back here for work."

NWUSD tries to look at least three years ahead in terms of district planning. "Birth rates are still declining," Juarequi says. "There's about a five year lag between birth rate changes and enrollment adjustments. We're seeing a continuing decline still. We'll probably be a district of 10 to 11 thousand by the time things level out." (Estimated enrollment this year: 13,170.)

The view from ACOE offers little encouragement. 11 of 18 unified districts project declines for this new school year. Of the rest, only Dublin Unified (+7.35%) expects gains greater than one percent. Jordan agrees that high housing prices, safety and poor academic performance head the list of challenges. But she also sees the all-too-common practice of one district "poaching" another's students. Oakland Unified is a regular target for surrounding districts. Again, the movement is away from schools less desirable due to safety, academics and facility deficiencies.

Jordan includes truancy as another factor, though it's been a long-term problem. With head counts taken at each class in the middle and high school levels, kids who skip out after reporting to their first class, also hurt income calculations.

Will it continue? Well, only if the downward trends continue until no kids report to public schools in the fall. That's highly unlikely, so the skid will stop at some point. Until then, parents are well advised to involve themselves in their local district affairs. It's the other common theme you'll hear from superintendents, teachers and staff. They all want to see and hear from the fathers and mothers of students. Attend school board meetings; communicate with local officials; study bond issue proposals when they arise. Most importantly parents, invest time with your child-students during the day and evenings too. If you're not aware of what they're doing and how they're doing in school, teachers and administrators can't carry that load. Not even their best efforts can substitute for the interaction of parent and child.

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