Every weekday morning, Sharde Mercier drives her daughters, Aleeah, 8, and Alyssa, 10, past their old neighborhood school in the Alum Rock Union School District to get to a charter school in San Jose.
She isn’t the only one going out of her way to get her kids to school.
More and more, Bay Area families – rich and poor – are opting out of nearby public schools in favor of charter, private or home schools. Many are sticking with the alternative schooling options that worked for them during last year’s school closures at the height of the COVID pandemic. At the same time, families are moving as housing and other costs skyrocket, and those who stay are having fewer children than their parents’ generation.
It’s all adding up to a crisis in public schools that is leading to funding shortfalls, teacher layoffs, shuttered campuses and the lost identity of generations-old neighborhood schools.
“School districts are going to have to make some hard choices,” said Jonathan Kaplan, a senior policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center. What school leaders should worry about, he said, is that kids who opted out of public schools during the pandemic may not return.
During the 2020-21 school year, all but five of California’s 58 counties experienced enrollment declines as schools turned to remote learning. This week, educators across the Golden State are bracing for new 2021-22 enrollment figures – to be released Monday – to find out whether the great COVID exodus from California public schools has continued, even as cases drop and children are back in the classroom.
The pandemic declines last year worsened a years-long slide in neighborhood public school enrollment, according to a Bay Area News Group analysis of California Department of Education data.
Since the 2016-17 school year, enrollment in California public schools fell by nearly 3.6%, and the total drop was 4.2% in the Bay Area. Enrollment statewide in 2020-21 was the lowest in two decades. The decline was even steeper for traditional schools, offset by a 15% increase statewide in enrollment in charter schools, which are tuition-free, independently run public schools.
In the Bay Area, enrollment dropped more than 10% in one in four school districts – including Alum Rock Union, San Jose Unified, Cupertino Union, San Lorenzo Unified and Palo Alto Unified – since the 2016-17 school year.
The drop was concentrated in lower grades, while the number of students in grades 9 through 12 increased slightly. Fremont Unified was one of the few districts that added students, albeit growing by less than one-tenth of 1% since 2016-17.
For Mercier, the choice to leave her neighborhood school wasn’t easy. But she said they didn’t feel comfortable as a Black family in a predominantly Latino school district, and wanted a school that would celebrate her kids’ culture and make them feel included.
“I really could see that my kids were being affected by not being around other people like them,” Mercier said.
When she toured Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep one month before schools closed due to the pandemic, she was immediately sold on the school’s cultural diversity and parent involvement.
Rita Tuialu’ulu’u and her husband opted against sending their young kids to Oakland public schools, but landed on a different solution two years ago: home school. The couple, who have since moved to San Bruno, can’t afford private school, and they don’t trust the public school system to keep their kids safe or accurately teach their kids about their Latino and Polynesian cultures.
More than 11% of families in the nation were home-schooling at least one of their children in fall 2021 compared to 5.4% in spring 2020, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report.
“Most people believe homeschooling is a luxury,” she said. “I beg to differ. My husband and I both work full time, we’re not wealthy and we have average jobs. But we’re educated and have the willingness to do it.”
While parents explore their options, the exodus means traditional public schools are facing vast challenges, socially and financially. Schools are scrambling to keep track of student departures and bemoan the loss of neighborhood kids and involved parents who bring diversity to the classroom.
Faced with empty classrooms and too few dollars to pay for them, districts are making hard choices.
San Francisco Unified sent hundreds of potential layoff notices to staffers to balance a $125 million deficit. West Contra Costa School District could cut staff contractors and student programs amid a $42 million deficit and a projected $151 million shortfall in the next two years.
Phased-in school closures in Oakland garnered national attention when two teachers staged a hunger strike and parents, students and educators rallied in protest, but the district is far from the only one forced to take such drastic action.
Alum Rock merged Clyde L. Fischer Middle School and Lee Mathson Middle School last year. Hayward Unified is closing Strobridge Elementary School and Bowman Elementary School at the end of the school year, potentially with more to come.
Even high-performing schools long sought out as destinations are suffering. Cupertino Union is closing two elementary schools and consolidating one more come fall.
State leaders and legislators are hustling to help school leaders navigate looming financial distress as enrollment falls.
Schools were allowed to use their pre-pandemic enrollment and attendance rates to calculate their funding needs for the last two school years, so many districts haven’t yet been penalized for the drops in attendance and could be at risk of losing millions when the pandemic relief ends this fall.
California is one of only six states in the nation to fund schools based on attendance, but new legislation could change that. Even if enrollment rates are down, the proposed shift in funding will help districts that are sorely suffering from chronic absenteeism. It’s estimated the change could give schools an extra $3 billion per year.
Schools, regardless of socio-economic status or school performance, are suffering as students leave. But the complete picture of where kids are going and why looks different in each community.
A survey of more than a dozen Bay Area school districts by this news organization found Cupertino kids more often left for private schools or to move out of the country while Alum Rock kids mostly moved to other public schools. But the impact on the districts was nearly the same.
In Cupertino, where many families can afford to send kids to high-priced academic programs and live next to high-performing schools, enrollment fell by 15.8% the past five years. In San Jose’s Alum Rock neighborhood, where a majority of kids qualify for free and reduced lunch and schools are low performing, enrollment dropped by 15.3% in the same period.
Alum Rock Superintendent Hilaria Bauer said most students leave because of the high cost of living, but student enrollment has “been very sketchy for the past two years as families left in a hurry with little if any time to provide reasons due to the pandemic.”
Cupertino Union School District spokeswoman Erin Lindsey said families are leaving because of escalating home prices and rents they cannot afford.
But parents say there is something else behind the departures: tensions with the school board during the pandemic.
Raj Singh was one of the first Cupertino school district parents to rally against the school board for the delay in returning students to campus in spring 2020. He moved his son, Sachin, 9, to private Stratford School during the pandemic because the boy struggled with at-home learning.
“I’d be downstairs working and he’d come downstairs to try to do an art project and he was crying,” said Singh, who pays more than $2,000 a month for private school. “I was like, ‘This is crazy. People move to Cupertino because they want the top schools in the country academically.’”
He said nine of 12 kids on his block also don’t attend Cupertino district schools. Singh, a “big believer in the public school system,” prefers the income diversity in the public schools and wants to move Sachin back. But now his son has friends at Stratford and doesn’t want to leave.
After moving to a nearby neighborhood, Melody Hall looked forward to her son Kai, 11, who has autism, going to a Cupertino elementary school in August 2021.
But she said he was frequently bullied so she enrolled him in a virtual charter school and also home schools.
“Here I’m very safe and I don’t have to worry about that guy anymore,” Kai said, while sitting in his room in front of a laptop on a desk filled with an ant farm, a calendar with his homeschool assignments and Legos. Hall has been able to stay home with Kai to guide him through the schoolwork, but she’ll have to return to the office soon. She is making accommodations so she doesn’t need to send Kai back to the neighborhood school.
Mike Fine, chief executive officer of the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which helps districts manage their finances, said schools should adjust to students’ changing needs – offer smaller classes, early child care centers, STEM activities and other academic options – to reel families back in as they face competition with nontraditional schools.
The solution isn’t to close a school when student enrollment is too small, Fine said. “It’s to figure out where kids (have gone) and get them back.”