In the face of rising housing prices, declining birth rates and COVID-19 school shutdowns, enrollment has dropped in many California school districts, including PAUSD. To ensure the high quality of a Palo Alto public education persists for future generations, The Campanile calls on PAUSD to build a long-term strategic plan to mitigate the effects of this demographic change.
Since 2015, enrollment in PAUSD has dropped by over 2,000 students, most significantly in grades K-8. Barron Park Elementary School only had 31 students in its graduating class of 2021, illustrating the severity of the impending crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic precipitated a trend of decreased enrollment by increasing the viability of alternative forms of learning. In addition, according to the US Census, the number of U.S. births has declined every year since 2008 except in 2014. And skyrocketing housing prices in Palo Alto have prevented young families with small children from moving in. The median price for a home now hovers around $4 million.
Potential implications of decreased enrollment include school funding shortfalls, teacher layoffs and even campus closures. Already, fewer students means fewer resources available to each school. With fewer teachers, class sizes are increasing, and non-seniors often have difficulty enrolling for elective classes they do not have priority in. Moreover, because of fewer teachers to cover Paly’s immense course options, more teachers are being forced to travel between schools and teach subjects they have little to no experience in.
Fewer summer course resources are also available than in the past. The Living Skills summer program now only accepts rising seniors and requires an application. Opportunities to move ahead or retake classes in math are also becoming limited.
The issue of enrollment will only continue to snowball unless district administrators and board of education members take action.
In November 2021, the board of education voted to create a lottery to increase enrollment at Fletcher Middle School where enrollment had fallen by 30% since 2015. The Campanile commends this decision as a way to balance enrollment across schools, but larger preventive measures must also be taken.
Superintendent Don Austin said redrawing district lines is not an option being discussed, but with an impending crisis at hand, The Campanile urges PAUSD to implement a committee to study the long-term impacts of declining enrollment and consider other potential solutions, such as allowing students from other districts to enroll in PAUSD and subsidizing housing costs for families with young students. In doing so, PAUSD will be able to maintain low class sizes, keep a top-notch teaching staff and continue to enable excellence in education.
Although The Campanile recognizes the enrollment problem is partly due to broader demographic and economic changes out of the district’s control, PAUSD is still responsible for guaranteeing the best educational experience for its students. Ultimately, that means making the issue of declining enrollment a priority action item and taking active, preventive measures to safeguard the quality of a PAUSD education for decades to come.