L.A. Unified enrollment continues to fall

Student enrollments at Los Angeles Unified continued to decline this fall — though less than county officials predicted — as new government funding expanded transition kindergarten to more 4-year-olds.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Supt. Alberto Carvalho said the enrollment of 422,276 – from transitional kindergarten through 12th grade – was “reason for celebration.” He pointed to the projected 4.1% drop versus the actual 1.9% drop, the smallest drop since 2013-14.

“But the work goes on,” said Carvalho.

The “post-pandemic enrollment stabilization,” Carvalho said, “is an interesting phenomenon that I have only seen in one other major municipality in our country. And that’s actually Miami-Dade,” he said, referring to the school system where he served as a superintendent before coming to LA in February.

The school enrollment rate benefited from a significant increase in the number of transitional kindergarten places due to an increase in state funding, which will essentially create a new grade in the next few years.

The number of pupils in the transitional kindergarten rose by around 2,700 to over 8,400, an increase of 47%. Without this increase, overall LA Unified enrollment would have decreased by 2.5%.

Carvalho suggested LA Unified was attracting more students than expected due to its reputation for strict health safety protocols – acquired during the pandemic. And other families, he said, were likely drawn to the relaxation of some of those protocols. The district ended weekly COVID testing this summer and made masking optional last spring.

However, officials acknowledged that they are speculating. Factors contributing to lower enrollment are complex and include birth rates, lower immigration, high cost of living forcing families to move, and competition from independently operated charter schools. More than 200 charters operate within LA Unified; Many of them also have problems filling positions. Also, an unknown number of students simply stopped attending classes during the pandemic campus shutdown.

Board member Jackie Goldberg spoke of the need for a marketing campaign.

“I’ve seen schools in my county that have things that nobody knows about,” she said. “I went to a school where they make hydrogen engines and drank out of the exhaust” – alluding to the fact that water is the waste product of a hydrogen engine. She was referring to the award-winning student mechanic-scientists at STEAM Legacy High School in South Gate who have competed internationally.

“I just think there are parents everywhere who would like their kids to go to a school that makes hydrogen engines.”

Enrollment has gradually declined in LA Unified since it peaked at about 737,000 students 21 years ago. This long-standing overcrowding affected the quality and even the quantity of education – as campuses operated year-round with students on staggered schedules that offered 17 fewer teaching days per year and limited access to advanced classes.

The challenge now will be to keep campuses open and programs profitable while enrollment dwindles.

While acknowledging the better-than-expected numbers, Board Member Nick Melvoin asked Carvalho to explain why the combined increase in transitional kindergarten and preschool is only about 3,000 students when the district announced this fall that about 19,000 new places for early childhood education are available.

The actual numbers are “well below the 19,000 you’re talking about,” Melvoin said. “Why such a big discrepancy?”

“Expansion was a multi-year goal,” Carvalho replied. “So we’re getting closer to that goal, not necessarily slower than expected.”

Melvoin said the variety of programs for students ages 4 and younger — with different formats and admission rules — could be confusing for parents unless district work is improved.

At this rate, universal enrollment of 4-year-olds would be “a decade away,” said UC Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller, who didn’t blame Carvalho for the disappointing pace he says is showing up elsewhere. Transitional kindergarten and kindergarten are not compulsory in California.

“Regardless of projections,” he added, the enrollment decline has resumed its typical pre-pandemic pattern.

“Whether parents are more comfortable or Mr. Carvalho’s efforts have proven effective, we have moved beyond the collapse in school attendance in the COVID-era,” Fuller said.

The data proves this.

Before the pandemic, 523,009 kindergartens were enrolled nationwide as of fall 2019. By the fall of 2020, when most public schools in California were online, kindergarten enrollment fell 11.6% to 462,172. At Los Angeles Unified, the decline was even greater at 14%.

When in-person classes resumed for most in the fall of 2021, kindergarten enrollment rose 1.7% across California, a stronger recovery than for any other class. But at LA Unified, kindergarten enrollments continued to decline, by another 6%, officials said.

This year, the LA Unified kindergarten drop is 1.2%.

During Tuesday’s meeting, as board members asked detailed questions, district staff asked for patience.

They couldn’t explain why there was a 1.6% drop in grade 12 after a 2.6% increase was forecast.

They also didn’t know if expanding more elementary schools through eighth grade would keep more students in the district. They couldn’t say whether magnet schools — which have special programs and no attendance limits — are accepting new students or pulling from other district schools instead.

“If you want a successful marketing strategy, we need to know the answers to these questions,” said Chief Financial Officer David Hart, who led the employee presentation. “It won’t be one size fits all.”

The district has produced a report with enrollments by school but no breakdown by race or geography yet.

“We’re very careful to understand what’s under our control,” Hart said, and how we can “use our skills, our talents and our finances to ensure we’re a district of choice.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-19/l-a-unified-enrollment-continues-to-fall-but-drop-is-cushioned-by-influx-of-preschoolers L.A. Unified enrollment continues to fall

Alley Einstein

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