Opinion: Shrinking enrollment and the rest of the picture


By Jim Kelly

We are in the age of data. Everything is “data-based” or “data-driven.” Do you have any questions? Follow the data. We’re bombarded with data and graphs and bullet points. We are so bombarded by daily loads of data that our brains begin to take shortcuts, looking at small number runs and short-term trends that fail to reveal the overall picture. We need to interrogate the data, ask the right questions, and understand the context.

For example, there was an article on the subject of shrinking enrollment in the Laguna Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) that saw a decline in overall student enrollment in the school district from year to year and arrived at the conclusion that because enrollment has declined, students must be leaving the district. The article brushed over a few significant statewide demographic trends in California that merit a closer look to understand why fewer students enroll in the school district each year – along with almost every other school district in California, charter schools included.

Driven by domestic migration, data from the past 30 years shows a steady trend of people leaving California. Most people who are leaving are choosing to go in search of more affordable housing and job opportunities. In addition to migration, there are trends in key demographic factors that can’t be ignored such as overall population growth, including birth rates. It is important to include statewide demographic trends, including domestic migration and declining populations, in the discussion about school enrollment. These factors significantly impact enrollment in California’s K-12 public school system.

In Laguna Beach, for example, we have experienced a decline in home inventory with many homes used as monthly rentals and investors buying second properties for occasional usage. The cost of living in Laguna Beach is not scaled for young families. On the off chance that they can afford to rent in this city, they are often forced out when their homes are converted into investment properties. They’ve chosen lower taxes, larger homes, and new job opportunities.

I live in Woods Cove, where only six families on the oceanside of Ocean Way are permanent residents. The other homes are owned by investors and occasional visitors from Canada, Colorado, Texas, Irvine, Pasadena and Los Angeles.

There are eight permanent families that live on the mountainside of Ocean Way and only three young children on the street. The three children on Ocean Way live in short-term rentals. Their families would love to stay in the district but cannot find affordable housing in Laguna.

Taylor Hawkins lived on this side. He loved Laguna but also had a permanent home in Los Angeles. His two younger students went to Los Angeles schools.

My husband and I were the first gay couple to arrive in 1994 and today there are four older couples without any school-age children. Older wealthy GLBT are returning to Laguna without children.

There is no data to support the conclusion that overall enrollment declines each year because of “a lack of confidence in leadership.” That’s not the question that was asked and ergo, not the question that was answered. In the analysis of the data, it is important to look at how those numbers got smaller – the data clearly indicates a decline each year in kindergarten enrollment, and there are key demographic factors that explain that trend. But what happens when we look at each graduating class over the years, do cohort sizes decline? The class of 2027, in kindergarten, was a cohort of 130 students. They are currently a cohort of 191 students.

Data, collected in June each year indicates that cohort sizes across grade levels grow each year by about 103%.

I went to graduate school in Tennessee while living in Memphis and Knoxville and I worked in Memphis public schools. I love the state but cannot see anyone moving to Tennessee for their schools. They are ranked 31 in the nation, according to a comprehensive analysis to determine the top-performing public school systems in America.

LBUSD has exceptional funding with superior teachers and school staff, including counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, coaches and administrators who are outstanding. The Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) is engaged and supportive at each location and involved in supporting the development of our students – if you haven’t been outside of the Laguna bubble, that is not the case everywhere. SchoolPower offer additional financial support, providing teaching grants that inspire educational innovation and afford students college and career exploration through exciting opportunities and experiences.

The number one priority of our school district is the mental well-being of students and staff. They invest resources in professional learning opportunities that encourage creativity and exploration, design classrooms that inspire a love of learning and make data-informed decisions to create a learning experience that puts student well-being at the center. I do not believe you will find a better public school district in the US.

Jim is a Laguna Beach resident and an elected member of the Board of Education, Laguna Beach Unified School District. The opinions expressed above are his only and not representing the views of the Board.

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