Student Enrollment Is Plummeting District wide. Why?

There has been a gradual decrease in enrollment district wide over the past 20 years.

8 mins read

There has been a gradual decrease in enrollment district wide over the past 20 years. This decline has predominantly impacted Black and Latinx students as well as those who classify as socioeconomically disadvantaged. This shift is slowly but surely altering the demographics of Sequoia Union High School (SUHSD) students, particularly at M-A. 

Given that most schools in SUHSD see a clear trend of enrollment decline, there is evidence of families moving out of the area entirely. We can also point to factors such as a lower national birth rate, unaffordable housing in SUHSD, and more students leaving the district in favor of charter schools.

Armida Torres, Detail-Oriented Operations Manager for KIPP High School, a new charter high school in East Palo Alto, explained, “Based on what I’ve been seeing, people are moving out of the area due to living costs. People are having less kids which means less students, plus people are just trying to keep their kids close to home. We don’t have a lot of kids coming in even though we have the KIPP Excellence feeder school from Redwood City. Our enrollment is mostly just local.”

District wide data of enrollment by ethnicity helps paint the picture of what is going on. Overall we’ve seen a steady decrease by 1.3% district-wide (507 students), just over the past five years. White and Asian enrollment is steadily increasing district wide, Latinx, Black and ‘Two or more race’ enrollment marginally decreased by a combined 4.3% over the past five years.  

M-A’s enrollment by ethnicity over the past 5 years has displayed an average of 2% declines each year for black and Latinx students. Meanwhile, M-A’s white population has increased dramatically from 28.10% in 2020-21 to 39.80% in the 2021-22 school year. 

M-A Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher Erika Shepard said, “We’ve got Atherton and East Palo Alto, two unique and totally different communities that feed into M-A. I feel like the shift is widening between them because if we’re not able to pull more from Ravenswood, then we have an even wider gap between the kids who are coming in from privilege and the kids coming in who lack that.”

Shepard explained that M-A’s AVID program searches for “in the middle” students or kids who want to do well, but have barriers to achieving success. Shepard said, “we used to get something like 75% to 80% of our AVID program from Ravenswood, but now I think it is about 30% in the last couple of years, starting before COVID. We’ve got theories, unfortunately, but not too much more than that. It’s just this new trend that we’re experiencing in our community.” 

M-A’s AVID program now being three times smaller than it was in 2019 acts as a clear descriptor of the immense demographic shifts we are experiencing as a school and as a district.  

Shepard also mentioned the “extreme filtering” when it comes to advanced or AP classes that, she thinks, could be another factor as to why M-A is getting less and less students from Ravenswood schools. Shepard indicated that there is only one student from the Ravenswood District who enrolled in AP Chemistry this past year. She said, “All the AP classes have similar racial demographics and we can talk about it as an issue, but if people have no interest in taking the class or don’t feel like they can be successful there, they’re obviously not going to take it and that’s not their fault.” 

In order to create change within the educational culture at M-A, Shepard argues that school leaders need to take initiative, however, this may not be enough. Shepard said, “we can throw an international week, we can celebrate the different diversity and culture, we can say ‘we would love to see more people of color in AP classes,’ but I don’t think there’s any data to support that we’ve made much positive change.” 

After compiling 20+ years of raw enrollment data, here are a few more in-depth analyses of the potential reasons why we’ve been seeing a steady decline in enrollment. 

Ravenswood’s Enrollment Decline

In 2019, Palo Alto Online published a piece indicating that Ravenswood school district could have fewer than 1,800 students by 2023, due to “skyrocketing housing costs and falling birth rates.”

As of now, this prediction rings true. The most dramatic enrollment dropoff has been Ravenswood feeder school enrollment in SFUSD high schools. In the past 23 years, the Ravenswood School District student enrollment has fallen by 76%, and it seems as though they will continue to plummet for years to come. 

The graph below illustrates how the number of children under the age of 14 living in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park has declined by 39% since 1999. 

Affordable Housing?

In January 2023, The Almanac interviewed Demographer Thomas R. Williams about current housing facilities in the district. Author Angela Schwartz explains, “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.” 

The 3 major new housing developments in the SUHSD boundaries intend to bring more families into SUHSD, but, given the space and price constraints, Williams is “doubtful that the city will be able to lay the groundwork for building housing that could accommodate families.” Williams explains that the population of minors in these cities are dramatically decreasing. He said, “It’s sad. The most desirable districts to be in are going to have the least kids.”

Torres from KIPP Esperanza High School added, “We had a year about seven years ago when all the house prices soared in price. A lot of the families were moving out to Modesto because it was cheaper. It even continued during that time and for like two years it was really bad. So our numbers went from having 100 plus students on the waitlist to having none.”

Evidently, this intended increased “affordability” measure isn’t quite landing in our communities, and doesn’t seem to be retaining many students or families in terms of enrollment at local high schools.  

Charter Schools

Another potential reason why SUHSD enrollment is decreasing is increased local attendance at local charter schools.

The data above demonstrates how some students living in East Palo Alto and East Redwood City have been taking alternate educational pathways that stray away from SUHSD high schools.

Here is a list of all of the local charter schools within a 25 mile radius. These high schools in San Mateo County are all places Ravenswood and other feeder middle school students transfer into instead of the five high schools in our district: Menlo-Atherton, Woodside, TIDE, Sequoia, and Carlmont. 

For research purposes, we’ve drawn a focus on the local high schools with the highest attendance from local feeder middle schools for more insight.

KIPP Esperanza High School

KIPP Esperanza High School opened recently, in 2017 and is located in East Palo Alto for grades 9-11. They have a total enrollment of 194 students, 100% of which are students of color: 99% identify as hispanic, 0.5% african american, and 0.5% identify as two races or more. Additionally, 94.8% are eligible for free/reduced lunches, 22% receive special education services, and 41% are English language learners. One of the school’s principles is “Developing Leaders of Color” as 83% of our executive team, 59% of our school principals, and 62% of our teachers identify as people of color. 

Torres explained, “Since our families have the option to have a kid in East Palo Alto and they already live here, It’s so close so that’s a plus to our families of color, to be able to sustain that type of living. There are parents that have to have two jobs, where their kids are getting raised by themselves, and then there’s just not even an option to think about ethical differences. If they have the option to go here, they’ll go here. So the majority of our students, the ones that make up KIPP, are from East Palo Alto.”

Many Charter schools in the area have benefits that set them apart from other public schools available in the same district. Torres said, “Since we’re a smaller school, we know all of our students. And that’s the difference. You can have more person to person contact with them, and you get to know the students. You get to know what they really need. You get to know their families and that’s the difference.”

In addition to the benefit of personalized attention at smaller schools, KIPP also promises better management and safety. Torres explained, “And plus, if we talk about behavior, every school has behavior problems, but knowing the families firsthand, along with being a smaller, more tight-knit school minimizes it. Then if I compare it with a big school if something happens in a corner, maybe because of a video or because of something targeted it’s harder to mediate. But then over here, we have the connections to families, that’s what’s different.”

TIDE Academy

TIDE Academy is another local charter school that opened in 2019, located in Menlo Park has just only 103 students, and attendance is based on a lottery selection. Over the past 5 years, TIDE’s Latinx population has increased by 7.7%, while the general population increased from 103 to 242 students. Still, TIDE’s population remains majority Hispanic, 56.2%, and 26.9% white as of the 2022-23 school year. 

For more information, here is a chart outlining TIDE’s enrollment by grade, gender and ethnicities.

East Palo Alto Academy (EPAA) 

EPAA’s total enrollment has also decreased since 2019. They had a high transfer rate for the 2021 school year, but their 9th grade enrollment has continued to increase by 9.1%, proving that they are taking in more students as opposed to less. Principal Amika Guillaume from EPAA noted that they didn’t have access to EPA’s feeder school data, but can say with confidence that, on average, 75% or more of EPA’s students come from Ravenswood schools. 

On some sites local charter schools are ranked much higher than the local public schools. Parents could be contesting online school rankings on sites like School Digger, Niche and US News & World Report, and making decisions based on this information. 

Here are our local schools and their rankings on School Digger’s rankings

While these numbers seem minuscule in the grand scheme of our district that encapsulates over 10,000 students, dispersed groups of 150+ students per year attending these various charter schools provides some context to SUHSD’s decreasing enrollment.

The Future of M-A and SUHSD…

As the demographics continue to shift, M-A and SUHSD will be forced to reevaluate how they recruit and retain Ravenswood students, people of color and socioeconomically disadvantaged students and staff in their educational journey. Still, some pushback also must also come from local elementary schools, with the intention of funneling children into the local public high school district. 

Shepard said, “I think it is really evident that people who come into M-A from Ravenswood have never been taught how to play the game of school.” Evidently, only a portion of M-A students come into 9th grade with the proper knowledge of determining the difference between each letter grade or the requirements to graduate college versus going to school. 

“Just from day one, that little knowledge gap can make a huge difference in their success in high school,” Shepard said. She proposes the solution that if M-A students could, in some way, all begin at the same educational baseline, M-A would be more equitable.

While we have a long way to go, it is important to recognize and attempt to target demographic changes at the root, as their impacts will begin to pick up attention more drastically in years to come.

Ella Bohmann Farrell was a senior at M-A and Editor-in-Chief. She enjoyed writing about controversies on campus and civic issues. She enjoyed that Journalism provides her with a creative outlet. When she wasn't on M-A’s campus, she enjoyed playing tennis, painting, and traveling.

Melanie Anderson was a senior at M-A. She was interested in writing about pop culture both here at M-A and within the city's community. She liked to challenge new ideas and bring light to hidden stories. In her free time, Melanie enjoyed dance, traveling, and reading.

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