Student enrollment declines across Santa Rosa as families move away
Every Monday after lunch, students and staff at Hidden Valley Satellite School gathered for a “nifty kid” assembly, where they sang songs and talked about the life skill of the month, such as perseverance or kindness. It was a fun tradition that ended when the campus was destroyed in the October wildfires, and its 80 students were sent to the main campus on Bonita Vista Drive.
“I do love the main campus, but that small little school was really special,” said Marcia Seim Bossier, a reading interventionist teacher who spent nearly five years at the satellite school.
Hidden Valley collectively saw the largest enrollment drop after the wildfires, within the Santa Rosa district. A total of 602 students were enrolled at the main and satellite campus last August. This month, school began with 537 students, currently all at the main campus, which even with the enrollment decline holds more students than it did before the fires thanks to the addition of three new portable classrooms.
Last school year, 700 students transferred out of Santa Rosa City Schools, the largest school district in Sonoma County with 16,020 students currently enrolled. The net loss was 399, since 301 new students did enroll last school year. Still, 700 gone in one year was significant.
“There’s a reason that they left the district and … we can surmise it’s potentially due to the impact of the fires,” said SRCS Superintendent Diann Kitamura.
Countywide, public schools had a net loss of 600 students last school year. An additional net loss of 1,000 students is expected by the end of this school year as more families leave the area, said Steven Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education.
“Many people relocated, many tried to keep kids in school during the current fiscal year for student stability, but as housing becomes more expensive we’re losing families,” Herrington said. “If you want your schools to grow, you need young families.”
The effects of the fires on Hidden Valley and the county’s other schools extend beyond reduced headcount.
“I don’t think anyone that works here can be unaffected by the fires,” said Meta George, who has taught first grade at the main campus for three years. “You have these young, young children whose whole life has just changed.”
George said her incoming class is a bit behind in math and reading. Last year, she noticed students needed more time to progress in their studies. Kids would lose concentration, or need to physically withdraw to a quiet space.
“The fires absolutely had an impact on students’ learning and progress,” George said. “Of course they’re thinking about other things when they’re living in the barn that’s still standing or above their family’s store.”
Gianna Rafael, who lives in Fountaingrove and attends sixth grade at Hidden Valley Elementary, recalled the ash, debris and confusion after the fires.
“It was weird and I didn’t know how to feel,” said Rafael, 11.
About 70,000 students are enrolled in public schools in Sonoma County. Over the past five years, about 300 to 500 students have left the county annually across its 40 public school districts. The high cost of living and lack of affordable housing cause families with young children to leave and deter others from coming here, Herrington said.
While falling enrollment isn’t uncommon, October’s devastating wildfires compounded the problem, wiping out 5,300 homes in the Sonoma County, including those of about 1,450 public school students and about 250 public school employees.
The increased decline in K-12 enrollment has a ripple effect on funding and resources. Santa Rosa schools projected enrollment for this school year at 16,141, but a week into the school year it was 121 students shy of that. California public schools budget based on enrollment but receive funds based on average daily attendance.
“With enrollment down, that’s going to be interesting,” Kitamura said.
It’s not just Santa Rosa City Schools that’s feeling the impact of the fires that leveled entire blocks, including in Coffey Park and Fountaingrove.
Although Schaefer Charter School in the Piner-Olivet Union School District was untouched by flames, the Tubbs fire laid waste to the surrounding Coffey Park neighborhood. About 133 students and 12 teachers in the district lost their homes.
Schaefer has about 353 students enrolled this school year, about 100 fewer students than last year, according to Schaefer Principal Kathy Harris. Because of the enrollment decline, the district reduced staff in March, although Harris didn’t have exact figures for how many teachers were let go.