CDE webinar highlights school programs attracting enrollment

School districts across the state are experiencing a high level of declining enrollment, as evidenced by California Department of Education data released in April. Even before the pandemic, many California communities were observing population drops and corresponding enrollment declines in K-12. The pandemic exacerbated declines as students left public schools and the state, but the most recent numbers show some rebound.

For the 2022–23 academic year, preliminary enrollment figures show the statewide total at 5,852,544 students, down 39,696 (or 0.67 percent) from the previous year. At grade level, the largest increases in statewide public school enrollment were in kindergarten, seventh and 11th grades. The largest decreases were in second, eighth and 10th grades. In comparison, the 2021–22 school year showed a statewide decline of 1.84 percent, representing more than 110,000 students.

The data release was accompanied by a CDE webinar, “Countering Declining Enrollment,” which can be found on the department’s Facebook page. During the event, panelists shared examples of best practices that school districts may be able to use to offset declining enrollment such as expanding dual-language immersion programs and leveraging science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) programs to attract families back to public schools.

Julien Lafortune, Public Policy Institute of California research fellow, looked at enrollment in California public schools over the last couple of decades and into the future. After a long period of steady enrollment from 2002–19, California has seen larger declines. “While some of that was due to pandemic factors, some of it we had been expecting due to declines in birth rates and changes in migration,” he said. “What we see when we look at projections over the next decade is that the K-12 system could potentially decline another 400,000 students or so.”

At a regional level, past declines have been largest in coastal regions, which is expected to continue, while growth in Central Valley regions is projected to be slowing down, with more movement into Sierra regions.

The webinar highlighted programs that are helping to increase enrollment and student outcomes in districts.

District and program highlights

West Contra Costa Unified School District in the East Bay has seen enrollment growth due to the 2017 creation of the West County Mandarin School, a Mandarin immersion, International Baccalaureate school. It began on a small campus in Richmond “as an initiative to help address declining enrollment,” according to school Principal Eric Peterson. He explained that charter school competition was pulling students away from traditional schools and the Mandarin school was conceived as an innovative program that would attract students and families — and it did. The school moved in 2021 to share space with an area middle school. West County Mandarin School began as a K-6 program, but is expanding through eighth grade next year.

Successes include a high reclassification rate of English learners, high academic growth rates on district benchmarks across demographics, high enrollment and attendance rates, and a CDE-designation as a 2022 California Pivotal Practices Award school.

“A joyful and engaged learning environment helps attract enrollment — and we really work to foster that,” Peterson said.

Delivering programs that connect with student interests is a key factor in attracting and retaining students, and can be especially challenging with subjects such as math. Jim Hollis, founder of the Calculus Roundtable, has worked with schools of all sizes throughout 46 districts in California.

“We try to find the programs that students are interested in and then we find the math and science to underly with their passions,” Hollis said. He reviewed statewide data mapping out where distinct pockets of absentee students are and explained how the organization zeroes in on where they feel they can make the largest impact. These areas are most often majority Latino or majority African American and the Calculus Roundtable delivers tailored programs for different student groups to get them re-involved in school. Over 85 percent of Calculus Roundtable are from these two groups.

One of its most popular programs is called “Think like a game designer.” “It’s more than just learning how to code, it’s learning all the aspects that happen at a video game company,” Hollis said. “While this is happening, we are underlying it with all the math and science that goes along with these careers, couching it in work that kids already love.” Students also take field trips to work with engineers in the field.

Students in the Calculus Roundtable program have seen decreases in the “far below basic” category of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and scores continue to improve each year. African American students in particular have seen larger-than-average gains in math assessment scores. School officials have also observed a decrease in suspensions.

“If we can inspire kids to express their own brilliance, we can follow with things they are interested in,” Hollis said.

Other strategies to attract and retain students presented by Glendale USD Superintendent Vivian Ekchian included investing in fun and educational summer programs to keep students connected to schools during off months, increasing student mental health supports with counselors and wellness centers/rooms where students can self-regulate, partnerships with local healthcare providers to provide wraparound services, and partnering with local industry to create internship and mentoring opportunities.

“I think the best strategy is to be a listening leader,” Ekchian said, “and to pivot and to be nimble and to recognize that everyone wants to be involved and engaged, but everyone doesn’t know how to. It’s on us to be listening and working with all populations to have every child feel welcome in our schools.”