Enrollment is shrinking at local public schools as families move out of the area, join learning pods or turn to private schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to district officials.
Although the local elementary school districts have seen small dips in enrollment over the last few years, the Sequoia Union High School District has seen steady growth up until this school year.
Menlo-Atherton High School's enrollment shrunk from 2,457 students in September 2019 to 2,371 this school year (a 3.5% drop), according to the district. Woodside High School dipped from 1,980 students in October 2019 to 1,906 this school year (a 3.7% drop), said Woodside Principal Diane Burbank.
Burbank said 61 students have dropped out since Aug. 1. Most moved out of the area because their parents changed or lost their jobs because of the pandemic's economic impact. Of the remaining students who left Woodside, 15 remained in-district but enrolled at Redwood High for credit recovery, six moved out-of-state, two switched to home schooling and four transferred to local private schools.
Students who did not enroll at M-A this year either moved out of the area, enrolled in other private or public schools, or chose to attend TIDE Academy (which was built to help reduce M-A's enrollment) or East Palo Alto Academy, said M-A Principal Simone Rick-Kennel in an email.
The diminishing enrollment figures in much of the region are in line with an NPR report that student headcounts are dropping at public schools nationally. Some families are choosing to switch to private schools, which reopened more widely than public schools, appealing to families fed up with children at home doing distance learning. Local public schools — including the Portola Valley, Menlo Park City and Las Lomitas districts — began phased reopenings in recent weeks while Sequoia high school district students are continuing with distance learning.
The Las Lomitas Elementary School District saw enrollment drop 7.6% to 1,111 students, as of Sept. 28, compared to 1,202 students during the same time last year.
Although Las Lomitas district officials haven't surveyed families, Superintendent Beth Polito said anecdotally she has heard some left the area as parents lost their jobs.
Enrollment numbers for the 2020-21 school year show the following:
• Menlo Park City School District is down 4.2%, from 2,932 last September to 2,808 as of Sept. 10. The decline is mostly in grades K-6, said Parke Treadway, the district’s public information officer.
• Portola Valley School District had 495 students as of Sept. 18 compared to 548 during the same time last year.
• Woodside Elementary School District is down just 1.06% from last year. There are 372 students as of Sept. 21 compared to 376 during the same time last year.
Districts don't anticipate the downturn to be permanent though.
"We do expect that much of the decline is due to families moving either permanently or temporarily out of the area because of the pandemic," said Treadway in an email. "If parents can work from home, many are choosing to relocate during this time. We expect many students to return once school has opened up again. Time will tell how the trend continues. This is happening in many districts around the area."
Portola Valley School District officials surveyed 52 students who left the district this school year. They found half cited moving out of the area as their reason for leaving. Some 36.5% switched to private schools, while 13.5% cited the shift to distance learning as their reason for departing, according to a report prepared by staff for a Sept. 24 school board meeting. Also worth noting: the number of new students the district expected to join decreased from 60 to 24 between Aug. 21 and Sept. 14.
The Woodside district, meanwhile, didn’t see much movement in enrollment figures this year, said Superintendent Steve Frank.
"We did have a few large families, with three to four children each, move out of state this summer," he said. "Several were in the kindergarten (now first grade) group."
Palo Alto Unified School District officials have seen a decline in enrollment, but have said taking into account school closures and people leaving the area because of COVID, it's not far off from past years. Enrollment fell from 11,683 students during the 2019-20 school year to 10,801 currently, according to a district report.
Some board members have also cautioned against reading too much into this year's data since there was so much disruption. Superintendent Don Austin said he expects a large percentage of students to return to the district.
"There hopefully is not ever going to be a trend that looks like last year; nothing about last year was normal," Austin said during a recent school board meeting.
"The report shouldn't be normal either. We’re down about 880 students. What is more important is as a percentage we're down similar to surrounding school districts and expect a large percentage of that to return to us." He said district officials aren't predicting what that will be but that they are confident families with children affiliated with Stanford University will return at some point, along with people who left for their second homes in Utah and Idaho.
"We will be open someday also. We also believe the tech industry will return at some point in time," Austin said.
The Ravenswood Elementary School District, which has already experienced diminishing enrollment in recent years, also saw a dip. It ended the 2019-20 school year with 1,964 students and started the 2020-21 school year with 1,738 students.
The decreased enrollment numbers actually mean more funding per student since most local school districts in The Almanac's coverage area are "community funded," which means they receive most of their revenue from local sources, including property taxes, parcel taxes and donations. Little of their funding depends on the number of students, so decreasing enrollment actually means there are more funds available per student.
Dips in enrollment are also affecting staffing needs, superintendents noted.
Palo Alto Weekly reporter Elena Kadvany contributed to this report