The Los Altos School District’s enrollment decreased by nearly 250 students this fall, the largest single-year drop in at least a decade and part of a continuing trend of declining enrollment in the district.
Enrollment dipped from 4,242 students in October 2018 to 3,996 this month. That is more than 100 students below the 4,107-student estimate included in the 2019-2020 budget district trustees adopted in June. The data was collected Oct. 2 as part of an annual reporting process that schools throughout California complete.
The district’s enrollment has been dropping for the past several years from a peak of 4,670 students in 2014. The downturn is the result of a variety of factors, district officials said, but they are still in the process of digging into the specifics of this year’s data.
Reasons for decline
The district uses a variety of methods to determine why enrollment is dropping and where students are going.
Each spring, families with students in the district receive a questionnaire asking whether they plan to return in the fall. District employees then follow up with those who don’t respond or say they are uncertain. When school begins in the fall, staff reach out to anyone whose child was expected but didn’t show up.
However, the process doesn’t capture everyone. There are some families the district is never able to reach. Additionally, the district can’t track students who never attend district schools in the first place, such as children who attend private school starting in kindergarten. There is no definitive list or count of the students who live within the district’s boundaries.
“It’s an interesting question,” Superintendent Jeff Baier said of nailing down where students who live within district boundaries end up. “From a demographic standpoint, it’s a tough nut to crack.”
What is clear is that a large number of families opt to send their children to Bullis Charter School. The two-year facilities deal the district and charter school agreed to in the spring caps the charter school’s enrollment at 1,111 students for this year. That’s an increase from a cap of 900 students last school year.
Baier said last week that he didn’t yet know exactly how many more families within the school district’s boundaries chose to send their children to the charter school this year.
This year’s district kindergarten class was actually up slightly, increasing from 421 students last year to 426 this year. That includes children in the district’s transitional kindergarten program. However, other grade levels showed drops, including 83 fewer first-graders and 97 fewer fifth-graders.
Despite the relatively steady kindergarten numbers, the district is seeing fewer children at younger grade levels than in the upper grades. This year, there are 539 eighth-graders, compared to 426 kindergartners.
“We are in general right now exchanging larger exiting eighth grade classes for smaller incoming kindergarten classes,” Baier said. “More are going out than coming in at the other end.”
One factor behind the enrollment drop that Baier cited is a declining birthrate. Across the county, the annual number of live births per 1,000 people dropped from 18 in 2000 to 15.2 in 2015, according to data from the Santa Clara County Public Health Department.
Enrollment trends have been uneven throughout the district. Some schools have actually seen an increase in student population over the past decade, while others have dropped. Loyola School has experienced the biggest decline, from 590 students in 2010 to 362 this year.
“What’s happening district-wide is you see that there is growth in the north side of the district, particularly where there is more new housing being put in north of El Camino and along the El Camino corridor in Los Altos, as well as in Mountain View,” said Randy Kenyon, the district’s budget director.
In contrast, Kenyon said enrollment is declining on the south side of the district, which is filled with predominantly single-family homes. According to Baier, there has been a decline in the number of students coming from single-family homes. However, he noted that these trends are cyclical. As children age out of the school system, parents often will stay in their homes, before eventually selling, often to younger families with children.
Planning for the future
Because of the way the district is funded, the enrollment decline hasn’t had a significant impact on the district’s budget, Kenyon said. The school district is largely funded through property taxes, rather than on a per-pupil basis.
With fewer students, the district has reduced the number of teachers it employs, Kenyon said. The reductions have been through attrition rather than layoffs.
Despite declining enrollment, the district is in the final stages of purchasing an 11.65-acre parcel at the corner of California Street and Showers Drive in Mountain View. The sale is slated to close Dec. 4.
Baier and Kenyon both said the purchase is still in the district’s long-term interests, pointing to the increase in housing development in the area around El Camino Real and the need to provide facilities for Bullis Charter School.
“Looking to the future, it makes perfect sense to have a school site in that area,” Kenyon said.
The district is using Measure N bond funds to purchase the land, but much of the $155 million deal is being funded by selling 610,000 square feet of unused development rights for $79.3 million. The city of Mountain View is also buying two acres of the site to use as a city park for $20 million and contributing another $23 million for joint use of recreation areas at the school during nonschool hours.