Students go to class outside at Gault Elementary School in March.
Students go to class outside at Gault Elementary School in March.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

Enrollment dipped across many Santa Cruz County public schools last fall, threatening ‘huge impact’

The number of students in Santa Cruz County’s public schools fell to 39,724 as of fall 2020. The decrease marks the first time in nearly a decade that countywide enrollment fell below 40,000, and it threatens to impact districts’ staffing and budgets in years ahead unless it rebounds.

A year that upended public education led to steep declines in California’s K-12 enrollment, dramatically accelerating what had already been a downward trend. And while Santa Cruz County’s public schools weathered the storm of pandemic-prompted campus closures better than most, there is still cause for concern.

Enrollment fell by 2.6% in California K-12 public school districts as of October, newly released state data shows, driven by a striking decline in kindergarten enrollment.

Enrollment in Santa Cruz County’s public schools fell 2%, to 39,724 students as of the October headcount. That’s 827 students fewer than the prior fall and marks the first time in nearly a decade that countywide enrollment fell below 40,000.

Enrollment had already been on a downward slide within Santa Cruz County since 2014, a trend attributed at least in part to families picking up and moving due to the area’s high cost of living. But the pandemic accelerated that slide into a loss that — if it doesn’t rebound — could leave some local districts needing to cut down on staff and possibly even close schools in the years ahead, education officials warn.

“I think it definitely is a much bigger reduction of enrollment than we’ve experienced, and we are concerned about it,” Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said. “Because if it stays that way, and kids actually don’t come back to our schools, that’s going to have a huge impact on us in terms of funding, in terms of services.”

Still, Sabbah said early registration numbers suggest a likely rebound — at least to some degree — this upcoming fall. Enrollment in the coming school year, he said, will offer local schools a somewhat clearer sign of longer-term impacts.

Local districts largely may not start feeling those impacts next year due to school funding formulas looking at prior years’ enrollment — and a windfall in federal and state relief dollars.

Several factors appear to be driving the enrollment dip. Some families moved their children to private schools in the fall rather than continue with remote learning, local education officials report. Other families opted to hold their children back from kindergarten rather than enter a remote learning environment, while other families may have moved out of the area.

Locally, enrollment decreases varied greatly across school districts.

Enrollment fell within elementary side of the Santa Cruz City Schools by nearly 15% from the prior year. The Santa Cruz-based district’s decline represents the largest proportional change in any district in the county, with the exception of tiny Bonny Doon Elementary. Bonny Doon Elemenatary is a one-school district in an area of the Santa Cruz Mountains in which the CZU Lightning Complex fires destroyed hundreds of homes over the summer.

Santa Cruz City Schools officials say the data might overstate the change because many of those students may still be within the public education system through an independent home study program called Alternative Family Education. That program, district officials report, saw a significant enrollment increase during the pandemic.

And enrollment for fall 2021 is already rebounding, according to Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Kris Munro. “We do know that many of the families that chose homeschooling, for instance, this school year are planning to return and have let us know that for next school year,” Munro said.

On the other end of the spectrum, two rural districts — San Lorenzo Valley Unified, and Mountain Elementary — saw enrollment grow.

Data from Santa Cruz County also shows enrollment impacts varied significantly across race and ethnicity — though in some cases the total numbers are small, and conclusions remain difficult to draw. Enrollment of indigenous students within Santa Cruz County plummeted by about 24%, from 155 to 118, the state data shows. And African American student enrollment fell by about 8%, while enrollment of white and Latino students fell at smaller rates and Asian enrollment increased.

The jury is still out on what those, and other demographic changes, may mean, according to Sabbah. But he said education officials are taking a close look at the data.

“It may not be surprising that we do see increased trends of mental health issues for our low-income families, or families of color, and our students of color,” Sabbah said.