Local public schools are still seeing dwindling enrollment tied to the pandemic, but the drops were not as significant as last year. A silver lining for some private schools has been a big increase in applications.
The Almanac and Palo Alto Weekly teamed up for a data project to examine eight years' worth of enrollment figures for local school districts. Although schools have generally seen enrollment decline in recent years, the pandemic dramatically accelerated that trend in many districts.
California public school districts collect enrollment data every October. Because the state hasn't released final numbers for this school year, the 2021-22 data was self-reported by school districts to the Weekly and Almanac. Data from prior years is based on California Department of Education records. This school year's numbers may shift slightly as the data is finalized.
School administrators attribute enrollment decreases in part to families moving out of the area due to skyrocketing housing costs, now that many parents can work remotely, and also to students choosing to attend charter schools. The 2020 U.S. census also shows the number of young people on the Midpeninsula is shrinking, even as the overall population grows.
Because most Midpeninsula school districts are funded primarily with local property taxes, rather than based on the number of students, the enrollment decline doesn't translate into less money for these districts. As long as property tax revenue doesn't decrease, districts will end up with more money for each remaining student.
Districts seeing declining enrollment pre-pandemic
The K-8 Ravenswood City School District, which has schools in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, had the region's "most severe" enrollment decline pre-pandemic, according to the San Mateo-based Enrollment Projection Consultants. District officials declined to comment when asked about enrollment figures.
Students enrolled at charters authorized by the district ballooned from 18% in the 2014-15 school year to 45.4% this school year. The district has seen a nearly 44% decline in non-charter school enrollment (1,501 students are enrolled) since the 2017-18 school year. There are 260 fewer students enrolled in the district's non-charter schools this fall.
Students are choosing the charter schools KIPP Valiant Community Prep and Aspire East Palo Alto, and the private Primary School in East Palo Alto. This means the district loses students and the government funding affiliated with them. The district is one of the few primarily state-funded districts on the Midpeninsula.
The Los Altos School District's enrollment has been declining for years, but during the pandemic that trend has accelerated. Last school year, the number of students attending district schools dropped by double digits (10.6%). This fall, there was another 6.5% decrease. In total, the district's enrollment has fallen from 3,999 students in 2019 to 3,344 today.
Superintendent Jeff Baier said some students moved out of the state, with others moving to other parts of California and some switching to private or charter schools. The pandemic has also made it more difficult to track where students end up, Baier said.
The district's numbers don't account for Bullis Charter School, which the state doesn't include in the Los Altos School District's enrollment total. Although Bullis is located within the district's boundaries, it is overseen by the Santa Clara County Office of Education.
Bullis' enrollment increased 5.2% last school year (from 1,039 students in 2019 to 1,093 in 2020). This year, it decreased 2.4% to 1,067 students. The charter school's enrollment is currently capped at 1,111 students under the terms of an agreement with the Los Altos School District.
Palo Alto Unified School District
The Palo Alto Unified School District saw its enrollment drop by nearly 1,000 students last school year over the prior fall, and then by another roughly 275 this fall. The school district currently has 10,476 pupils.
Before the pandemic, the district was seeing its numbers dip, but more slowly. Palo Alto saw 2.1% declines in enrollment in each of the two school years preceding the pandemic.
As with many districts, Palo Alto's enrollment plunged in the fall of 2020, declining 8.4%. Superintendent Don Austin said that although many districts expected to see a rebound this fall, he took a more conservative approach and thought it was likely to stay flat. Instead, enrollment dropped another 2.6%.
"I did not expect a big rebound, but yeah, it was a little bit of a surprise that we were down again," Austin said.
The decline in Palo Alto's student body is more pronounced in some areas of the district. Barron Park Elementary School now has fewer than 200 students, compared to Escondido Elementary, which has more than 450. Ellen Fletcher Middle School has roughly 500, which is much lower than the 800 to 1,000 students at each of the district's other two middle schools. Both Fletcher and Barron Park sit in the southeast corner of the district.
Fletcher's shrinking population has prompted the district to consider running a lottery for the school next year, which would allow families in other parts of the district to apply to have their children attend Fletcher. The district's board supported that possibility at a Nov. 16 board meeting.
Mountain View Whisman School District
Enrollment in the Mountain View Whisman School District dropped 6.5% last fall compared to the prior year, and then by another 5.1% this school year. In total, the district has gone from 5,082 students in 2019 to 4,511 this fall.
That's in contrast to the years before the pandemic, when the district's enrollment was holding relatively steady. The number of students was fluctuating only slightly year to year, with a net change of just two students between the fall of 2015 (5,084 students) and 2019 (5,082).
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said that besides families voluntarily leaving, the recent demolition of a number of apartment complexes in Mountain View may have forced other families to relocate.
"The pandemic was a perfect storm of a multitude of events that created a drop in enrollment," he said.
The district did see some students who withdrew last year come back this fall, even as the district's overall population continued to drop, Rudolph said.
Despite the current drop in enrollment, Mountain View Whisman officials continue to project a long-term increase in students as a result of planned housing growth in Mountain View. State housing targets call for the city to plan for 11,135 housing units between 2023 and 2031.
High school district outliers
The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District is one of the few local school districts that was seeing its student body grow before the pandemic hit, but for the past two years, the district's enrollment has essentially flatlined.
Last fall, the district had just 15 more students than the year before, which works out to a 0.3% increase. In total, the student body sat at 4,563. This year, the district saw its enrollment drop for the first time in at least eight years, with a 1% decrease to 4,516 students.
That's a marked difference from what MVLA was experiencing before COVID-19 disrupted education. In the five years from 2015 to 2019, the district's enrollment shot up by over 500 students.
Overall enrollment in the Sequoia Union High School District increased almost 1% from the 2019-20 (10,238 students) to 2020-21 (10,327 students) school years. Preliminary 2021-22 data shows enrollment decreased by about 2% (to 10,109 students) from last year.
Individual schools in the district, like Woodside and Menlo-Atherton high schools, saw declining enrollment over the last two years.
Woodside has seen about an 11% dip in enrollment (1,752 students this school year) from the 2018-19 school year (1,964 students). This school year, 2,226 students are enrolled at M-A in Atherton, down from 2,368 last fall, an over 6% drop.
Small school districts
Portola Valley Elementary School District administrators formed a study group in response to their enrollment dip — PVSD has 477 students, down more than 13% from the fall of 2019-20, according to Superintendent Roberta Zarea.
The group will study enrollment trends in Portola Valley and comparable local school districts, facilities capacity, student demographics, performance data, how to attract and retain students and more. They will make recommendations to Zarea and the governing board.
Enrollment is down 2.3% from last school year, to 2,716 students, in the Menlo Park City School District. In September, Superintendent Erik Burmeister explained that some families re-enrolled last spring for the fall term, but ultimately dropped out. It's rare to have this level of attrition between re-enrollment and the beginning of the school year, he said.
"It's safe to say this is a temporary decline in student enrollment," he said. "Some folks don't want to come (to school) in person until COVID is in the rearview mirror."
Las Lomitas Elementary School District, which has one school in Menlo Park and one in Atherton, "lost families during the pandemic to people moving and a few learning pods, who ultimately returned," said Superintendent Beth Polito in an email. The Las Lomitas Elementary School District has 1,099 students enrolled this year, down about 9% from the fall of 2019 (1,208 students).
"A portion of (the) continued enrollment decline is the loss of international families who largely worked/studied at Stanford (University)," she noted.
The one-school Woodside Elementary School District has 365 students. Enrollment is down almost 11% from the 2018-19 school year.
Applications rise at local private schools
Forbes reported last June that the pandemic bolstered private school enrollment when parents saw how differently private schools handled learning at the onset of the pandemic.
Although some local elementary-aged students last fall returned to classrooms, at least on a hybrid basis, many public high school students did not. On the other hand, many private schools resumed full-time in-person learning during the last school year.
"The pandemic revealed a view behind the 'school system' curtain, which promulgated some families to move and to change education paths," said Karen Aronian, a parenting and education expert who holds a doctor of education, in an email. "The whiplash turnstile of remote, hybrid, in-school, quarantine, and repeat has left public schools, their students, and communities in a tailspin of logistical protocols and uncertainties."
Menlo School in Atherton was open for in-person learning sooner than the comprehensive high schools.
The private school, which serves sixth through 12th grade students, has "seen an uptick in admissions interest since the pandemic started," said Alex Perez, its director of media relations. Menlo has seen a 10% increase in applications over the last two years, he noted. The school has 795 students enrolled, according to its website.
"It's a record year for us," he said. "We have certainly seen greater demand from families who are seeking an independent school education."
Amory Healy, a sophomore at Menlo School, transferred from Palo Alto High School this school year, in part because she didn't feel like her public high school had the resources available to support her.
"At Paly, there were around 30 people in each class, and many teachers were so busy that there wasn't really time for students to reach out and get extra help," she said. "I think as well with how competitive college admissions are, having a school that gives easy opportunities to obtain leadership opportunities and provides great college counselors is a very popular plus side of private schools."
Trinity School on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park has seen a 36% increase in applications since the pandemic hit, said Kirk W. Gossman, director of admission.
The Episcopal school has seen a significant increase in applications across the board. It's also seen an increased number of transfer requests from public school families for this school year.
"We thought these kids may return to the public (school) sector once those schools reopened but instead, they stayed and brought siblings to join them," he said in an email.
The number of applications to Pinewood School, which has three campuses in Los Altos, has increased 20% across grades K-12, said Lisa Longbottom, director of admissions, in an email. The school enrolls 600 students.