Declines in class sizes could be positive, especially when over 80% of students qualify as low-income or English-language-learners, but administrators are left constrained
By Barbara Zaragoza
While the decades-old stereotype may be that illegal aliens are fleeing over the border and saturating American schools, three districts in the South Bay are currently experiencing declining enrollments: San Ysidro, South Bay Union and National School District. Of these three, two lie directly along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Over 80% of students in all three districts are classified as either English-language-learners, low-income, or both (also referred to as the unduplicated pupil percentage or UPP). All three also have high percentages of students classified as homeless. Here is the data for 2015-2016:
Of all the struggles these districts need to worry about, school boards and administrators must also be concerned with declining enrollments. The problem is large enough that in October 2015 trustees of the San Ysidro School District voted to spend $30,000 on advertising in Ella Magazine in order to attract more students. The South Bay Union also spends $700 per month for the same magazine to publish inspirational stories about their families.
One argument for declining enrollments may be that scandals and poor reputations in general mean students in these districts are transferring en masse. However, the numbers show only negligible transfers out of those districts:
San Ysidro 229 (5%)
South Bay Union 279 (3.6%)
National 132 (2%)
So what accounts for the declining enrollment?
Aging Neighborhoods Mean Fewer Students
One reason may be aging communities that have been built-out. When developers build housing units, new communities attract young couples with children. Developers then give school districts property in order to build new facilities. After twenty to thirty years, that community ages and the number of children going to the local school decreases.
The South Bay Union School District may be a prime example. In 1994 the City of Imperial Beach adopted a General Plan & Local Coastal Plan in which they wrote: “The South Bay Union School District presently has 12 elementary schools and one preschool site within its district. Six of the elementary school sites are located within the City limits of Imperial Beach. Today, the District is severely impacted with more students than the schools’ fixed facilities can accommodate. In order to reduce this problem, the district has placed, on an “as-needed basis,” portable classrooms on each site.” (General Plan/Local Coastal Plan, pg. F-13)
The 1994 report concluded that the district needed to build more schools. Within four years, the South Bay Union School District reached its maximum capacity, accommodating 10,155 students. After that, student enrollment began a steady decline.
Imagine a newly built school. Residents are given a tour of classrooms and told that the school can accommodate a set number of students. This is what’s called the ‘hard-build’ capacity.
However, the tour will rarely include the number of portables (trailers) created in order to accommodate the increase in the number of students. Charts from the California Department of Education show that of the three school districts, each of their schools had rising enrollment at one time. During the rise, the vast majority of schools within all three districts built portables.
The number of portables is not set by the state and their numbers are limited only by the cost to build them and the land available on school property. What that means is when you first look at the current student enrollment numbers in these districts and compare them to the hard-build capacity of the school, most schools appear to have an over-capacity of students.
Central Elementary School, for example, was built in 1953 for a student population of 479. The student enrollment for Central elementary in 2015 was 691—a full 212 more students than the originally intended hard-build capacity. That is true for nine out of the ten elementary schools in the National School District, and yet every school is considered under-enrolled.
Student enrollment also fluctuates, sometimes unpredictably. After many years of decline, in 2009-2010 National experienced a sharp increase in enrollment by about 200 students. Administrators were at a loss as to why.
San Ysidro, however, presents a different case. Some of their schools, including Willow Elementary and Vista Del Mar are impacted, while others have declining enrollments. Part of the problem is that former (now shamed) Superintendent Manuel Paul converted the schools into non-tradition grade clusters, such as K-3. Furthermore, Otay Mesa has large stretches of land that is yet to be developed. If more housing comes in within the next decade, predictably, that could generate enough students to necessitate a brand new school.
Declining Enrollment: A Definition
Each year, declining enrollments impact school districts because districts are paid per child. Chris Carson, the Assistant Superintendent of Business Services, explains, “If I tell you that I’m in declining enrollment, it just means that this year I have fewer students than last year. That’s all it means. It has nothing to do with the actual buildings.”
As enrollment increases, portables are built and more staff is hired. If enrollment goes down the next year, the money received per student decreases and therefore the budget decreases. Staff members need to be cut.
Carson explains, “When you’re in declining enrollment, your loss of revenue is greater than your ability to cut expenses because you’re losing more per child. Let’s say you’re going to eliminate an entire classroom of kids. Let’s say it’s 25 kids. That loss of revenue is going to be greater than just cutting one staff member.”
Abdollah Saadat, Assistant Superintendent of Business Services at South Bay Union, re-iterated the problem. “For the past almost ten years, this district has been cutting its budget by almost one to two million dollars.”
Saadat explains that if you budget for 25 students to show up and you hire a teacher for that classroom, but only 20 students attend, you have a classroom using extra utilities with less money. You also have to cut back on your staffing, which means not only teachers, but librarians, administrators, teacher’s aides, etc.
From a business standpoint, the concern over declining enrollment makes sense. But does it make sense when overall quality of education is taken into consideration?
An Egalitarian Education For All
The state of California has a history of trying to move toward an egalitarian educational system where every student, no matter what income level, receives the same education. That ideal is what drove the construction of UC’s and community colleges throughout the state.
The educational ideal, the ‘gold standard’ if you will, for San Diego County is probably the Francis Parker School, located in San Diego. Out of a total enrollment from K-12 of 1,191 students (with two separate campuses), the Los Angeles Times: California Schools Guide for 2012-13 cited the school as having a total of 121 teachers–that’s about a 10:1 student-teacher-ratio.
By comparison, the National School District with its 10 campuses and 5,563 students has 142 teachers total.
Student-teacher ratios are negotiated between the districts and teachers. The maximum class size is then set by the state. However, budgetary constraints must always be a consideration. As Carson explains, if National School District were to go down to a 14:1 student-teacher-ratio, the district would need 222 teachers, which would cost at least another $5 million per year.
Francis Parker’s tuition from K-5 is about $22,400 for one year. These three districts receive approximately $7,000 base funding per student and then some supplemental & concentration funds, making the upper limit per child no more than $10,000 max. That number takes into account that these schools are receiving more money thanks to the federal Title 1 funding and the California LCAP funding.
Per Pupil Funding
The very definition of declining enrollments might be what’s hindering administrators from establishing a higher quality education for their students. Rather than looking holistically at a school and determining where their financial needs lie—the per pupil payments (or actually the average daily attendance–ADA–payments) mean funding fluctuates each year based on student enrollment.
Could school financing theoretically be based on other criteria?
Declining enrollment numbers also do not take into account overcapacity schools, which may need their numbers to decline. When enrollment declines, no matter what, administrators must see the decline in terms of budget cuts.
Finally, if top universities and private schools advertise low student-teacher-ratios and small total enrollment as the ‘gold standard’ of education, then shouldn’t we ask districts (and the developers they work with to obtain school sites) to build smaller schools rather than mammoth campuses? With the high cost of land in the South Bay–that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.
Thanks goes to Tony Hua (Director of Intervention Support Services), Chris Carson (Assistant Superintendent of Business Services) and Abdollah Saadat (Assistant Superintendent, Business Services) for providing the numbers and taking time to be interviewed.