Resurgence afoot at El Molino High?
Over the past decade, El Molino High School administrators watched the school’s enrollment steadily decline to about half its former size.
So this fall, when enrollment climbed 23 students above what it was last year, they saw cause to celebrate.
To them, the small increase marks the reversal of a decade-long trend. It’s also a sign that recent efforts to expand the Forestville high school’s offerings and increase its visibility in the community are paying off.
“It’s pretty darn exciting,” said Keller McDonald. He is superintendent of the West Sonoma County Union High School District, which also includes Analy in Sebastopol and Laguna continuation school. “We’re not seeing a huge influx of new students yet, but as far as the energy level and commitment, it’s great.”
It’s not just about enrollment, he said, it’s about a resurgence at El Molino.
Officials this year increased the school’s course offerings, turning a popular accelerated social science course into a ninth grade advanced placement human geography class. There’s also an additional Project Make offering, a farm-to-table class co-taught by the school’s agriculture and culinary teachers, and a digital marketing course.
The school plans to break ground on an extensive renovation of its football stadium next summer and is drafting plans for a $7 million performing arts center. Both projects will be funded through a 2010 school bond.
And the district has hired a part-time community outreach coordinator to get out the word about what El Molino has to offer.
Officials initiated many of these efforts in response to a districtwide decline in enrollment over the past decade from 2,654 students in the fall of 2004 to 2,108 last fall. They attributed the decline mainly to rising home prices and a subsequent drop in the number of young families living in western Sonoma County. Bucking the district trend, Analy High School managed to maintain its student population over the years, mainly by attracting new students from nearby school districts with a promise of strong academics and diverse program offerings. But El Molino, smaller and farther away from other population centers, saw its enrollment drop from 1,104 in the fall of 2004 to 585 last fall.
That was exacerbated several years ago by El Molino being named a Program Improvement school for failing to meet academic goals, mainly test-score requirements, under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Students are allowed to transfer away from Program Improvement schools, and many chose to go to Analy.
Now, El Molino has given up Title 1 funds, meaning it is no longer in Program Improvement and students can’t transfer away from the school on those grounds.
To further address the issue, the district last year tightened up its transfer policy, allowing students to switch between El Molino and Analy only under very limited circumstances.
Under the new rules, only five ninth-grade students in El Molino’s area were approved transfers to Analy this year. That’s down from 66 in the 2012-13 school year, before the policy took effect.
McDonald acknowledged that El Molino’s gains in enrollment are largely due to the new transfer policy. The goal, he said, is to start attracting more students to El Molino from outside the district through increased outreach and offerings.