A surprising trend is expected to hit one Menlo Park school district in the next five years: significant enrollment decline.
The Menlo Park City School District student body will stand at around 2,500 students in 2027, down 7.4% from 2,700 today, according to a report by Demographer Thomas R. Williams presented to the school board on Dec. 15. Current kindergarten enrollment is the lowest since before 2006, despite the impacts of the pandemic otherwise easing this year, demographers said. District students come from Menlo Park and Atherton, which boast some of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country.
"All of my clients are hemorrhaging kids," said Williams. "You're actually doing better than everybody else. Cupertino is down thousands of kids. ... It's been a crazy few years."
The decline is due, in large part, to a lower birthrate and the assumption that housing in the district is unaffordable for many young families who would otherwise love to send their children to public school in the area.
"It's still way up from where it was in the 1990s," he said. "A little more space in your schools can be beneficial."
The demographic trends in Menlo Park are consistent with other communities in the region, according to Williams. Increased enrollment in San Carlos is the one exception Williams is seeing.
In years past, Menlo Park district officials feared that schools would be overcrowded with students.
Where is new enrollment coming from?
The district is expecting to grow by about 95 students in next school year when its transitional kindergarten (TK) program expands to all three of its elementary schools and opens to all 4-year-olds. TK enrollment is projected to rise from the current 41 children to 173 a year from now. Currently, the TK program is only offered at Lower Laurel School and is limited to older 4-year olds. If not for that increase, the total district enrollment would be forecast to drop by 37 students next year.
New housing in the next five years will contribute to the enrollment, with 100 additional students projected in 2027 from those dwellings. The majority of that growth is expected to come from families moving into three new apartment complexes this year. Springline near the Menlo Park train station, Realm on San Antonio Street near Menlo College and Stanford University's Middle Plaza along El Camino are all moving in tenants. All three are in the Encinal Elementary School attendance area and the new arrivals should lessen the anticipated decline in enrollment when compared to Laurel and Oak Knoll elementary schools.
Williams noted that many of the new apartment complexes coming online in Menlo Park should not lead to an increase in students because they're too small to be hospitable to families. These developments don't include affordable three-, four- or five-bedroom homes, he said.
"We're seeing an aging of the population," he said. "It's sad. The most desirable districts to be in are going to have the least kids."
For example, at Springline there are only eight three-bedroom apartments and only 45 units over 1,000 square feet, according to the developer. The maximum apartment size at the Realm is also three bedrooms. The largest apartments at Middle Plaza are two bedrooms and rent will cost up to $4,700, according to its website.
Williams said that a problem with state housing mandates is that they encourage building the maximum number of new units, which lends itself to building more small units. For example, at the Parkline project proposed at the SRI campus, he expects that the more apartments that are built on the site, the smaller each unit will be.
Board member Sherwin Chen noted that the dip could provide the district with time to plan for an eventual increase in enrollment generated by new housing developments in Menlo Park.
Williams said he is doubtful that the city will be able to lay the groundwork for building housing that could accommodate families.
Real estate for expansion on hold
Before the report was available, district officials had considered whether they should consider buying property to help accommodate growth.
The school board discussed, in closed session, purchasing 2 Lowery Drive in Atherton, an ideal location for expansion since it is next to the Lower Laurel School campus, said Superintendent Erik Burmeister. The price (the property sold for $5.6 million in 2021, according to Redfin) was going to be far too high for the district, though, he said.