Shrinking enrollment continues at Laguna Beach USD, sparking parent discussion 

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Students arrive on the first day of instruction at Top of the World Elementary school om August 2021. Photo by Mitch Ridder

By Megan Miller, Special to the Independent

The Laguna Beach Unified School District has seen a decline in school enrollment in recent years, leading some parents to question whether statewide demographic trends or district management are to blame.

While declining enrollment is a problem administrators claim they’ve grappled with for years, parents urge the district to keep students and their academics at the forefront of decision making. Data obtained from a California Public Records Request shows 534 students withdrew from the district between July 2020 and January 2022, not including graduating seniors.

Sheri Morgan, president of the Laguna Beach High School Parent-Teachers Association, said she submitted records requests to gain a general understanding of enrollment trends in the district.

Due to the nature of state public records laws and the way these requests are worded, the school district can only provide data that the district already has, district spokesperson Shelley Spessard said.

“We’re not shy about how we know enrollment is declining and inflation is rising. Our community is getting a little bit older,” Spessard said, adding that rising housing prices have made it difficult for young families to move into the City.

Ian Hanigan, a spokesperson for the Orange County Department of Education, said the statewide trend of declining enrollment has affected the county for a number of years.

“Experts have attributed the decline to several factors, including the high cost of living that has forced many families out of California and lower birth rates,” Hanigan said.

Jeff Dixon, assistant superintendent of business services for Laguna Beach Unified, said in a statement that Laguna Beach has been similarly affected by a smaller number of students entering elementary schools.

“Over the course of the last 10 years, we have seen our average elementary cohort or grade level size go from 206 in 2011 down to 165 today,” Dixon said. “That steady decline in the number of students entering our elementary schools has led to smaller cohorts entering each of our middle and high schools.”

Spessard pointed to data released by ed-data.org, which numbered the primary total of enrolled students (excluding short-term enrollments) across the four schools at around 2,788 for the 2019-2020 academic year. That number decreased to 2,634 in 2020-2021, representing a 5.5% decrease.

Comparatively, enrollment decreased in the neighboring Capistrano Unified School District by 4.5%; Newport-Mesa Unified decreased by 8%; Irvine Unified decreased by 1.4%.

Some parents have expressed concern over the declining enrollment in Laguna Beach Unified, citing a lack of confidence in the leadership decisions of the school district.

“The reason we moved to Laguna was for the schools, and at the end of the day the reason we moved out of Laguna was because of the schools,” said Dustin Bainbridge, founder and CEO of the local exam coaching firm Horizon Education and a former Laguna Beach resident.

Bainbridge’s children had attended schools in Laguna Beach Unified for two years before the family uprooted and moved to Tennessee in June 2021.

Some parents expressed concerns about aspects of the district’s COVID-19 response, including the adoption of the trimester system.

“It created a very chaotic atmosphere that was not good for learning,” Laguna Beach resident Leslie Briggs said.

The trimester system saw students at Thurston Middle School and Laguna Beach High School splitting a typical six-class schedule into three semesters. Students would take only two classes for about 12 weeks.

For Bainbridge’s daughter, that meant she took strings and physical education during her first three months of middle school.

“You’ve got learning loss, you’ve got lack of subject continuity, but you also have the kids in advanced placement [courses],” Briggs said.

With the statewide advanced placement (AP) exams occurring in May, those who took the courses in the first trimester had several months in between the end of the class and the test date. Those who took the class in the spring would have to learn and master the material in the 12 weeks preceding the test, possibly less, concerned parents said.

Laguna Beach Unified axed the trimester system, returning to a model reminiscent of a pre-pandemic block schedule with six-year-long courses for the 2021-2022 academic year.

This decision came after a proposed “4 by 4” model met resistance, including a protest of more than 60 parents and students last May, for reasons similar to the concerns expressed over the trimester model.

Instead of completing two classes per trimester, under the “4 by 4” schedule students would complete four classes per semester.

While the relationships he forged with other community members in Laguna Beach Unified “were second to none,” Bainbridge believes that staffing decisions at the district level and the scheduling changes are making Laguna Beach Unified a less competitive option compared to other districts.

“I was ready to stay [in Laguna Beach] for the rest of my life. The only thing that moved us was the school district,” Bainbridge said, adding, “Look at the root cause. It’s about not listening to the community.”

Laguna Beach Unified is unable to provide information on the total number of families who withdrew from the district, only the number of individual students.

As far as scheduling changes in the future, the school district is constantly evaluating and discussing scheduling adjustments, Spessard said, but added, “There is no plan to make any abrupt changes going into this next year.”

Voters will decide who should take three Laguna Beach Unified board member seats up for grabs in November.

The next school board meeting is set for April 19.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Can we please stop blaming the Board for every problem that comes along? Given the decline in enrollment county-wide it appears this is a demographic issue.

    Funny how the writer used the guy who moved to Tennessee of all places as an example of people leaving the schools to “improve” their children’s education. Perhaps the article could have been improved by comparing our schools to those he relocated his kids to. A quick search produced results on Niche.com. Collierville School District is rated the best in the state. Their reading and math scores are 61% and 62% respectively. Laguna’s are 83% and 78%. A local school district for comparison is Newport Mesa, Their numbers are 63% and 52%. Finally what guess what the Irvine Unified School District’s numbers are, 77% and 73%.

    Enough already.

  2. What Sam said.

    Put this on the list with other Indy-boosted manufactured problems like the shocking news that two city staffers are retiring after 30+ years of service.

  3. Ha, ha, ha….Tennessee? Moved to Tennessee for the education? Like moving to the Mojave desert for the ocean views…..

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