State: Sonoma County public school enrollment continues to decline, homeless students increase
Across Sonoma County’s 40 school districts, declining enrollment has slowed this year compared to the pandemic years, but the percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged and homeless kids has increased, according to new California Department of Education data.
The downward trend in enrollment has been a cause of major concern for years because state and federal funding are directly tied to the number of students in each school.
As Sonoma County becomes increasingly too expensive for families to stay, districts will be forced to have even more difficult conversations about cutting programs, consolidating districts and even closing schools, said County Superintendent Amie Carter.
For example, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, which has seen almost a fifth of their enrollment numbers drop in the past five years, has been considering those options, as well as redistributing grade levels. Officials attribute the drop in enrollment to lack of affordable housing, students attending other districts and a steadily declining birthrate.
The state’s enrollment data, which was released this week, shows countywide enrollment has dropped by 0.66% since last year, which was on a par with the statewide decline of 0.67%. Since 2017, county enrollment has declined 8.6%. Statewide, enrollment went down by 6.2% during the same period.
“It's tough,” Carter said. “I think we'll increasingly see more difficult conversations in front of our school boards as the years progress.”
Increase in struggling students
Carter said the most “heartbreaking part” of the new data is the increase in homeless students.
There are now 31,515 socioeconomically disadvantaged students and 699 homeless youth documented in the public school system in Sonoma County, according to the state’s Department of Education.
That’s a 62% increase in homeless youth over last year, though the numbers may be skewed by those who did not go to school during the pandemic. The 699 figure is 28% more than the 2018 school year, which counted 547 homeless youth.
There are also 5% more socioeconomically disadvantaged students in Sonoma County than last year, according to the data. Students are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged if they are migrants, in foster care or homeless at any time during the academic year; if they are eligible for the Free or Reduced-Priced Meal Program; or if both parents did not receive a high school diploma.
A study by Generation Housing released last month found families with young children are twice as likely to be “severely cost-burdened renters.“ Cost burden is calculated by assessing the percentage of an annual household income that goes toward housing.
Generation Housing also found that younger residents, young families, and those with less educational attainment are more likely to consider leaving Sonoma County, mostly because of housing costs.
Generation Housing advocates for and conducts research on affordable housing in the North Bay under the national social justice nonprofit, Tides.
“It is pretty bad,” said Calum Weeks, the project’s policy director. “It breaks my heart to see all of the struggles our kids are clearly facing.”
What does enrollment data tell us?
Weeks said the enrollment data tells us two things:
1. There’s not going to be enough funding to fully support schools, which will worsen the situation for those already struggling.
2. There’s a declining number of families with children in our county. “Which is even worse, because it indicates we’re becoming a geriatric community, which could be a significant hurdle toward our future’s economic sustainability if we don’t start building housing for folks to afford to live here.”
Sonoma County is predicted to have a 16.9% enrollment drop by 2031, the fourth worst plummet in the state, according to 2021 projections by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state-chartered organization that helps school districts grapple with their finances.
During pandemic years, the county saw enrollment drops of about 2.5% annually, though this year’s data also shows districts, on average, have failed to rebound and gain students.
According to Eric Wittmershaus, spokesperson for the Sonoma County Office of Education, there are at least two reasons why the enrollment declines may not be as steep as the previous three years:
- The rollout of transitional kindergarten means more 4-year-olds are entering the school system than in previous years, which could be offsetting the decline.
- Kindergarten is an optional grade, so parents may have chosen to keep their children out of kindergarten during the pandemic.
Carter, the county superintendent, said the slow leak of students is difficult because kids don’t “disappear in neat little bundles.” She said it creates a “Swiss cheese situation for our districts,” affecting academic programs, sports offerings, campus consolidations and more.
“The adults do everything to cause the least amount of impact to young people they can,” she said, but there’s not a whole lot they can do to curb demographic trends.
The Office of Education advises districts with how to handle both the steady trickle of students leaving and the increased need for support that comes with more disadvantaged students, she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8531 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @alana_minkler.