A teacher at Lafayette Elementary School fixes a student’s mask as San Diego Unified begins phase one of its reopening plan at elementary schools. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
A teacher at Lafayette Elementary School fixes a student’s mask as San Diego Unified begins phase one of its reopening plan at elementary schools. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

It’s been clear since the start of the pandemic that San Diego Unified – and many other school districts – have lost more students than expected. Some students have moved, and others have enrolled in private or charter schools.

But many open questions have remained about where the drop is happening. Are students mainly opting out of kindergarten, as some have suggested? Are more students leaving public schools in rich neighborhoods than in poor ones?

New data obtained by Reopen San Diego Unified – a group of parents advocating for San Diego Unified to do more in-person learning – sheds some light on these questions.

The bottom line: While there are some discernible trends, drops in enrollment seem to largely be happening across the board. Wealthier families do seem to be opting out of traditional public schools at slightly higher rates, but some data also suggests vulnerable students are leaving at increased rates.

What Age Groups Are Leaving?

High schools experienced the smallest drop in enrollment by far. On the whole, their enrollment dropped by less than half a percent, which you can see in Reopen San Diego Unified’s data.

The enrollment drop, however, isn’t just happening at elementary schools – as San Diego Unified officials have suggested.

Middle schools and elementary schools both saw enrollment declines of more than 5 percent.

That means it’s not just parents opting to skip kindergarten – which is technically allowed in California. If middle school enrollment is declining, that could likely mean two different things.

First, parents could be opting to send their child to charter schools or private schools. But it also could mean families are being forced to move. The cost of living is extremely high in San Diego. If they have lost a job or income due to the pandemic, they might be moving to Arizona or Mexico or even further afield.

One last point on enrollment by school type: Alternative schools actually experienced the largest drops in enrollment, at more than 7 percent. Alternative schools serve many different kinds of students – but on the whole, they tend to serve many of San Diego Unified’s most vulnerable, such as students who are having trouble academically for one reason or another.

That makes a pretty compelling case that many of the students who are leaving aren’t just doing so simply because they have the means, but for other reasons that are more likely related to instability caused by the pandemic.

Does Income Matter?

Reopen SDUSD makes the case that schools with large drops in enrollment “tend to be in more affluent areas, indicating that families who have options are opting out of San Diego Unified.”

I wanted to test this theory, so I merged Reopen’s data with another data set that shows the poverty level at each school, as measured by the percentage of students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch.

It turns out income is not a great predictor of enrollment declines. Thirty schools had 10 percent enrollment declines or greater. Of those, 17 had higher poverty rates than the district average.

The problem with statistics is you can drive yourself crazy chopping up datasets in a million different ways.

I did look at one other metric that showed rich schools tended to have some big enrollment drops.

Among the schools with the 20 lowest poverty rates, six had enrollment declines of 10 percent or more. Among schools with the 20 highest poverty rate, the same was true for only two schools.

Averaged out, the rate of decline was 6 percent at the richest schools and 4 percent at the poorest.

Reopen San Diego Unified’s thesis has been this: Lots of parents are opting out of San Diego Unified. That should force the district to examine its behavior and do much more in-person learning than it is currently doing, the group’s argument goes.

If we could say for certain that declines in enrollment were concentrated among those with the options and means, that might be true. But the data seems to show that vulnerable families are leaving too. They don’t have the option to send their kids to private schools. They could send their children to charters – which are free schools, open to the public – but data suggests charter school students are among the least likely to be open for in-person learning in the county. So, that wouldn’t back up the claim.

What the data actually suggests is that many students are dropping off the public school map. We know where the rich kids are landing, and we know they’ll probably be all right. What’s really scary is thinking of everyone else.

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org...

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