May 12, 2022

The growth of Sacramento’s suburban school districts has spared the state’s declining enrollment

By Diana Lambert, EdSource

It took David and Karen Santoscoy 10 years and the right opportunity for the couple to buy a home in Natomas and bring 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 from Inderkum High School. Crystal is a freshman at the school and is part of her California Early College Academy, which will allow her to earn college credit while in school. Aldo is an eighth grade student at the Jefferson School of Natomas Unified.

The family is among the latest wave of residents to move to Natomas, a community in the capital Sacramento, in search of affordable housing, good schools and proximity to downtown jobs.

A lot has changed since the family last lived in Natomas. New subdivisions straddle the three highways that intersect the community near the Sacramento airport. Others are under construction.

“Natomas is growing,” said building inspector David Santoscoy. “They’re 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 across the street from their home.

“There’s a nice family environment on the north side where we live,” Santoscoy said. “There is no danger in going out at night. There are also plenty of cycle paths. We have our bikes and we cycle. There are also one, two, three parks within walking distance, which is good because our condo has no backyard.

Natomas Unified, which serves 10,766 students in Sacramento, was the only school district in Sacramento County to increase student enrollment since 2019. It added 271 students. Another 5,327 students within the district are served by charter schools. Charter schools increased by 250 students during this time.

While the construction of new housing in the suburbs around Sacramento has saved some school districts in the region from the tightening of the belt that accompanies declining student enrollment, most districts in the region are facing difficult financial decisions. to balance their budgets.

Registrations are falling are being felt throughout California. K-12 schools across the state had 110,300 fewer students this school year than the year before, a drop of 1.8 percent. In 2020-21, student enrollment fell by 2.6%. The reasons are varied and include falling birth rates, less immigration and parents’ Covid concerns, including state-imposed Covid restrictions in schools. But the statewide picture can be very different in specific areas like Sacramento, where some districts are dealing with growing schools.

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

Natomas Unified enrollment has more than doubled over the past 20 years. Total student enrollment in the five-county area has increased 23% since 2000.

Evans doesn’t know where new students are coming from, though historically many families have come from the Bay Area in search of more affordable housing.

“Wherever growth comes from, there is room and space for children,” he said.

Charter schools in the district have limited space for extra students and have long waiting lists, said Joe Wood, executive director of Natomas Charter School, which serves 1,896 transitional K-12 students. .

The Natomas Charter did not increase enrollment this school year, but it did see a 10% increase in applications. Few people 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 due to new development in northern Sacramento County. Some of the housing that will be built is within the boundaries of the Twin Rivers Unified School District. This year, enrollment in this district decreased by nearly 1,200 students, to 21,719 students.

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

The largest districts in the region have lost registrations

All of the largest school districts in the Sacramento area have lost enrollment since the pandemic began. Sacramento City Unified has lost 5.1% of its 40,090 students, San Juan Unified has lost 3.2% of its 39,329 students and Elk Grove Unified has lost 1.8% of its 63,124 students since 2019, according to an EdSource analysis of the data of State. 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 at as planned housing developments are built.

Elk Grove Unified, which serves students at 67 schools in Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Sacramento and unincorporated Sacramento County, has lost 1,139 students over the past two years. Enrollment in the districts increased by a third between 2000 and 2019.

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

The district will open Miwok Village Elementary School — this is the 43rd elementary school — at the start of next school year in an area of ​​the city that is due for further development.

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

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

Private schools added students

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

The Diocese of Sacramento has seen a 9% increase in enrollment in its kindergarten through 8th grade since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, said Katie Perata, executive director of Catholic Schools in the diocese. The diocese has 42 schools in Northern California, including two online schools.

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

Although the greatest demand is for seats in elementary school, trailers and modular units have had to be installed to accommodate the approximately 100 new middle and high school students who have enrolled over the past two years, a- he declared.

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

Brar cites concerns about school fights, vaccination mandates and the quality of education in district high schools as reasons for transferring her son to private school.

The majority of parents who pulled their kids out of public schools and enrolled them in Bradshaw Christian during the pandemic did so because they watched distance learning and didn’t like what they have seen, Eastvold said. Others cited concerns about Covid precautions, vaccination mandates or the desire for a Christian education as a reason for enrollment.

Eastvold said the school would only enforce the state’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate when 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 have gained students over the past 20 years but have seen enrollment losses since the pandemic began.

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

Almost every school district in Yolo County has seen enrollment decline since 2019, except for Winters Joint Unified, which increased by one student. Yolo County saw enrollment increase by 1,848 students over the previous 20 years.

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

County Superintendent Gordon is particularly concerned about the financial health of Sacramento City Unified, which has seen declining enrollment since at least 2018 and long-standing financial issues. The decline of 1% per year has led to the loss of about 1,500 students. Because of this and recent cost increases, including staff increases, the district general fund is unlikely to be able to cover its ongoing costs in the future, Gordon said 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 body between 2000 and 2019.

Gordon says headteachers in districts with declining enrollment — especially those in low-growth areas — should start preparing for a future with less funding.

Closing schools is an option for districts with declining enrollment, Gordon said, calling the choice “a double-edged sword.” He warned that school districts could lose more money if parents withdraw students from a district that chooses to cut costs by closing a school.

“They have to be prepared to be very careful with their spending and to save where they can,” he said.