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California's Enrollment Rollercoaster

EdSource Special Report

Growing suburban Sacramento school districts spared state’s declining enrollment

Above: Students fill the hall at Inderkum High School on the first day of school in August.

Districts losing enrollment face revenue loss

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It took David and Karen Santoscoy 10 years and the right opportunity for the couple to be able to buy a house in Natomas and move their family back to the Sacramento community where they once lived.  

Now, the couple and their children, Crystal and Aldo Villatoro, live in a condominium across the street from Inderkum High School. Crystal is a freshman at the school and part of its California Early College Academy, which will allow her to earn college credits while in school. Aldo is an eighth-grade student at Jefferson School in Natomas Unified.

The family is part of the latest wave of residents to move to Natomas, a community in the capital city of Sacramento, in search of affordable homes, good schools and proximity to jobs in the city’s downtown.

A lot has changed since the family last lived in Natomas. New subdivisions straddle the three freeways that intersect the community near the Sacramento Airport. More are being built.

“Natomas is definitely growing,” said David Santoscoy, a construction inspector. “They are going to have to build more schools.”

There are more activities and amenities for the family to enjoy now, he said. There are farmers markets in the North Natomas Regional Park on Saturday mornings and outdoor movies on Friday evenings in the summer. And, just a few weeks ago, the North Natomas Aquatic Complex — a water park and community center — opened down the street from their house.

“There is a nice family environment on the north side where we live,” Santoscoy said. “It’s safe to be out at night. There also are lots of bike paths. We have our bikes and we go bike riding. There also are one, two, three parks within walking distance, which is great because our condo doesn’t have a backyard.”

Natomas Unified, which serves 10,766 students in Sacramento, was the only school district in Sacramento County to have increased student enrollment since 2019. It added 271 students. Another 5,327 students in the district’s boundaries are served by charter schools. The charter schools grew by 250 students during that time. 

While new housing construction in the suburbs around Sacramento has saved some school districts in the region from the belt-tightening that comes with declining student enrollment, most area districts face tough financial decisions to balance their budgets. 

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Enrollment declines are being felt across California. The state’s K-12 schools had 110,300 fewer students this school year than the year before – a 1.8% drop. In 2020-21 student enrollment dipped 2.6%. The reasons are varied and include declining birthrate, less immigration and parents’ Covid-related concerns, including state-mandated Covid restrictions at schools.  But the statewide view can be very different in specific regions like Sacramento where some districts are coping with growing schools.

Natomas Unified opened Paso Verde School, a TK-8 school, last year to alleviate overcrowding at other schools. District officials also plan to open the Heredia-Arriaga School, a Spanish dual immersion elementary, in the fall of 2023, said Superintendent Chris Evans.

Enrollment in Natomas Unified more than doubled over the last 20 years. Total student enrollment in the five-county region has grown 23% since 2000.

Evans isn’t certain where the new students are moving from, although historically many families have come from the Bay Area in search of more affordable housing.

“Wherever the growth is coming from, there is room and space for kids,” he said.

Charter schools in the district have limited space for additional students and have long waiting lists, said Joe Wood, executive director of Natomas Charter School, which serves 1,896 students in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade.

Natomas Charter didn’t increase enrollment this school year, but it did have a 10% increase in applications. Not many on the waiting list were able to move into the school because fewer students left than usual, he said.

Natomas Unified isn’t the only school district expected to have increased enrollment because of the new development in northern Sacramento County. Some of the housing that will be built is within the Twin Rivers Unified School District boundaries. This year enrollment in that district declined by nearly 1,200 students, to 21,719 students.

The quest for affordable housing has enticed families to move even farther north to places like Plumas Lake and Wheatland in Yuba County. The county added 300 students during the pandemic, with the largest growth in those two communities. The county has grown slowly over the last two decades, with an 11% increase in student enrollment.

Region’s largest districts lost enrollment

All the largest school districts in the Sacramento area lost enrollment since the pandemic began. Sacramento City Unified lost 5.1% of its 40,090 students, San Juan Unified shed 3.2% of its 39,329 students and Elk Grove Unified lost 1.8% of its 63,124 students since 2019, according to an EdSource analysis of state data. District totals do not include charter school enrollment.

Sacramento County School Superintendent Dave Gordon is optimistic that school districts in high growth areas, like Natomas Unified, Folsom Cordova Unified and Elk Grove, will enroll more students in the future as planned housing developments are built.

Elk Grove Unified, which serves students in 67 schools in Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Sacramento and unincorporated Sacramento County, lost 1,139 students over the past two years. District enrollment grew by a third between 2000 and 2019.

Elk Grove, home to a majority of the district’s children, added 563 new single-family homes and 109 new apartments last year, said Kristyn Laurence, public affairs manager for the city. Elk Grove’s general plan projects that the city will continue to grow over the next few years.

DIANA LAMBERT/EDSOURCE

Elk Grove Unified will open Miwok Village Elementary School next school year in an area of the city slated for new development.

The district will open Miwok Village Elementary School — it’s 43rd elementary school — at the beginning of next school year in an area of the city slated for additional development.

Elk Grove Unified officials aren’t sure why they had a drop in enrollment this school year. Although some schools have lost students, others — in areas of high growth — are full.

“The one obvious thing that occurred between school years 2019-20 and 21-22 was Covid-19,” said Xanthi Soriano, director of communications for the district.

Private schools added students

While many public schools in the region lost students, some private schools increased enrollment during the pandemic.

The Diocese of Sacramento had a 9 percent increase in enrollment in its preschool through 8th grades since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, said Katie Perata, executive director of Catholic Schools for the diocese. The diocese has 42 schools in Northern California, including two online schools.

Enrollment at Bradshaw Christian School, a preschool through 12th-grade campus in Sacramento near Elk Grove, has spiked since the pandemic began, growing from about 1,160 in 2019 to about 1,400 this school year, said Carl Eastvold, head of the school. 

Although the biggest demand has been for seats in the elementary school, trailers and modular units had to be brought in to accommodate the nearly 100 new middle and high school students who have enrolled in the last two years, he said.

Manu Brar has enrolled her son Avi, 12, at Bradshaw Christian School for seventh grade next school year, instead of at Harriet Eddy Middle School in Elk Grove Unified. The switch meant a 20-minute drive back and forth to the school each day and $700 a month in tuition, she said.

Brar cites concerns about fights at school, vaccine mandates and the quality of education in the district’s secondary schools as reasons for moving her son to the private school.

The majority of the parents who removed their children from public schools and enrolled them at Bradshaw Christian during the pandemic did so because they watched instruction during distance learning and they didn’t like what they saw, Eastvold said. Others cited concerns about Covid precautions, vaccine mandates or the desire for a Christian education as reasons for enrolling.

Eastvold said the school would only enforce the state Covid-19 vaccine mandate if absolutely necessary and would likely challenge it in court if it goes into effect.

Most small school districts in Sacramento, Placer, Yolo, Yuba and El Dorado counties gained students over the last 20 years but had enrollment losses since the pandemic began.

Since 2019, Placer County public schools lost 1,200 students, with the largest enrollment declines in schools in rural Colfax, Newcastle and Auburn. Schools in more populated areas of the county saw smaller declines and even some growth. Placer County enrollment increased 36.5% or by 20,000 students between 2000 and 2019.

Almost every school district in Yolo County had enrollment declines since 2019, except Winters Joint Unified, which grew by one student. Yolo County saw enrollment grow by 1,848 students in the 20 years before that.

The Sacramento County Office of Education, which has oversight over the finances of all county schools, regularly projects the growth of each district to help determine its fiscal health. Because schools are funded largely by students’ average daily attendance, a loss in enrollment can mean less money to pay district salaries and other bills. 

County Superintendent Gordon is particularly concerned about the fiscal health of Sacramento City Unified, which has had declining enrollment since at least 2018 and longstanding financial problems. The 1% per year decline has meant the loss of about 1,500 students. As a result of this and recent cost increases, including staff raises, the district’s general fund is not expected to be able to cover its ongoing costs in the future, stated Gordon in a letter to district Superintendent Jorge Aguilar earlier this month. 

 The district, which currently has 38,348 students, lost 22.6% of its student enrollment between 2000 and 2019.

Gordon says school leaders in districts with declining enrollment — especially those in areas with little growth — should start preparing for a future with less funding.

Closing schools is one option for districts in declining enrollment, Gordon said, calling the choice “a double-edged sword.” He warned that school districts could lose more money if parents pull students out of a district that elects to cut costs by closing a school.

 “They need to prepare to be very cautious with their spending and to economize where they can,” he said.

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  1. Scott Hill 7 months ago7 months ago

    Thanks for the article; in this series, highlighting where enrollment is growing is an essential part of the overall story. Natomas USD is not solely the beneficiary of new housing development. Superintendent Chris Evans and team are among the most diligent education leaders in the state. To this diverse community, they offer and their sites and teams provide a range of programs and options that establish confidence and options across the community … Read More

    Thanks for the article; in this series, highlighting where enrollment is growing is an essential part of the overall story. Natomas USD is not solely the beneficiary of new housing development. Superintendent Chris Evans and team are among the most diligent education leaders in the state. To this diverse community, they offer and their sites and teams provide a range of programs and options that establish confidence and options across the community in Natomas’s schools. These include: Pre-AP and AP; IB, dual immersion, specialized academies, and charters.

    While new construction supports stable and growing enrollment, the more impressive work is the vision and commitment from Natomas leadership and board in actively demonstrating to their community that they will earn each family’s decision to enroll their students in the district’s schools. Studying and learning from these decisions seems a worthy endeavor during these times of unprecedented changes in enrollment and attendance.