GUSD Faces Declining Numbers

First published in the Nov. 13 print issue of the Glendale News Press.

Glendale Unified School District officials are mulling over how to stymie a declining enrollment rate that, during the coronavirus pandemic, has brought the large system to less than 25,000 students.
Although the district is adding new students each year, those numbers have not been enough to replace its losses — generally through graduation, but more recently also through transfers. After enrolling 26,119 students in the 2015-16 school year, officials report there are currently 24,233 students at GUSD schools.
To be clear, this is far from unique to Glendale Unified. Indeed, this is a statewide issue, companion to California’s declining population growth rate that cost the state a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a result of the 2020 U.S. Census numbers. Experts point to the large disparity between housing cost and wage growth, which too has affected Glendale.
Districts across California are scrambling to address the effects of shrinking enrollment. Student enrollment and attendance play a significant role in the state’s funding of school districts.
“It’s a reality that the housing crisis is impacting the whole state,” school board member Greg Krikorian observed at last week’s meeting, “and we’re seeing a lot of families leave the state because of the financial challenges we’re having.”
At the moment, there are 13,075 elementary students, 3,557 middle school students and 7,601 high school students at GUSD schools. Although there were 2,730 new students enrolled in the district for the start of the current year, the district still experienced a net loss of 691 students from the prior year, representing a 2.77% reduction.
“Pretty average, actually, that loss,” said Stephen Dickinson, the chief business and financial officer for GUSD. “Not happy about it and we definitely want to plan for ways to rebound from it, but it’s a very common trend in L.A. County.”
According to the district, there were 1,007 students who did not return to the district for the 2021-22 school year after being enrolled last year, of whom 855 were Glendale residents. (The remainder attended on an inter-district permit.) Of the 1,007 students, 620 were in grades TK-6 the prior year.
Enrollment reporting indicates that 465 of those non-returning students enrolled in another California public school, and 168 of those were within 25 miles of Glendale. Burbank High School had the highest number of those transfers, with 34, while John Muir Middle School in Burbank followed with 14 enrollments.
Another 145 students left GUSD to enroll in private schools, with nine students each transferring to the Rose and Alex Philbos Armenian School in Los Angeles and Village Christian in Sun Valley. Burbank, La Cañada Flintridge and Pasadena private schools also received many of these students.
Among the other departing students, 130 left the state, 37 left the country, 52 moved out of Glendale and 178 did not indicate a reason for the dropout.
This year, the district has 1,625 inter-district permits — meaning students whose home districts have released them to attended GUSD, typically because a parent or guardian works for GUSD or in the area. Of those, 480 were new, with the others being renewals.
Superintendent Vivian Ekchian said inter-district permits were trending lower as a reflex against, again, declining enrollment. More recently, she added, the trend of working from home has changed working situations for parents.
“Some school districts are not releasing their students,” Ekchian said. “In the past they did, but because there is a statewide decline in enrollment, school districts have changed their guidelines and are not releasing them.”
Krikorian, continuing his comment about housing costs, wondered whether the district was headed for a bigger drop in enrollment. He speculated that the substantial increases to unemployment benefits throughout the worst parts of the pandemic — on top of the targeted eviction bans — may have delayed the additional exodus of some Glendale residents who have otherwise been priced out of their rentals.
“A lot of these benefits are going to be ending soon, so we may even see a bigger dip in students,” he said. “The government was paying out a year full of rent. That’s going to be gone. What’s going to happen to those families in our district? We need to be prepared for these things.”
At the end of the day, Board President Shant Sahakian felt the best response for the district was to address and promote things within its power — its dual-language immersion programs, its partnerships with other entities, its award-winning extracurriculars.
“I think that’s going to be the best place for us to focus our energy, and that might be things like the FLAG (foreign language academies of Glendale) program and providing additional spots for students and the various other programs we have across the district,” he said. “Our district has many great things happening and certainly we could always use the ability to communicate that more.”