Solutions Mulled as Public School Attendance Declines

Although its two elementary schools have had relatively stable enrollment in recent years, the San Marino Unified School District appears to be losing enrollment most significantly starting at the middle school level, according to the district’s most recent figures.
As of the beginning of last week, the SMUSD had about 2,847 students showing up to school each day so far this school year, down from the 2,967 at the end of the prior year. Actual attendance also falls below the enrollment figure of 2,896.
As Linda de la Torre, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, pointed out at a school board meeting last week, enrollment figures tend to differ from attendance for a variety of reasons, including parents’ tendency to wait to formally withdraw a student from public school if he or she is trying out a private school. At the beginning of the year especially, some students are out of the country, wrapping up summer vacations.
Given that the district receives about $10,200 per student in attendance each year from the state, the district is facing a drop of about $1.224 million this year compared with last year, if current attendance remains the same. With nearly 50 students who are still enrolled but not yet attending, the district could be shorted nearly $500,000 of expected revenue this year, unless new students help close that gap.
“As you know, if enrollment continues to decline and we continue to lose revenue that we’re not able to pick up somewhere else, there are only so many ways that we can address that, unfortunately,” De la Torre said.
Though attendance at Carver and Valentine elementary schools has declined slightly, it has been stable compared to that of Huntington Middle School and San Marino High School since the 2016-17 academic year and tends to drop by only a handful of students per year. Carver has had 592 students attending school this year (out of 605 enrolled) and Valentine has had 562 attending (out of 574 enrolled).
Carver has had the equivalent of 25 classroom teachers every school year since 2016-17, with the average class size gradually falling from 25.28 to 24.2 students. With some exceptions, the average class size each year per grade level has slightly increased from transitional kindergarten through 5th grade.
At Valentine, there has been the equivalent of 24 teachers since the 2016-17 academic year except for last year, when the school had 23 teachers. Average class sizes matched that trend, slightly declining each year from 24.21 to 23.96, save for the year with one fewer teacher. Interestingly, class sizes per grade level have varied more randomly at Valentine than they have at Carver.
HMS has 664 students attending this year, out of 677 enrolled, representing a fairly significant decline from nearly 800 in 2016-17. Because the school has had the equivalent of 27 teachers throughout that period, average class sizes experienced a substantial drop in those years, from 28.77 students to 25.07.
“That’s the lowest I’ve seen in public schools, at least in terms of class size,” remarked Superintendent Jeff Wilson, who was once a middle school principal in Arcadia and West Covina.
SMHS has an attendance of 1,029 students this year, out of 1,040 enrolled. Student attendance appeared virtually unchanged from 2016-17 through last year, and then took a fairly significant drop from the 1,125 who attended the school last year. Although the presentation last week did not include a chart on average class sizes, SMHS had the equivalent of 48.4 teachers in 2016-17 and has had 47.8 since. (It would be difficult to report high school class sizes similarly to those of elementary and middle school because class options are much less uniform at that level.)
While attendance at Carver, Valentine and HMS seems to have peaked in 2016-17, the SMHS peak was in 2015-16.
As all this was presented to the school board last week, member Shelley Ryan wondered aloud when the district might be approaching a point of diminishing returns to keeping class sizes low amid the funding drop.
“We’ve continued to put the money in the classrooms by keeping the class sizes low and continuing to make sure the kids get the best education in terms of teacher-to-pupil ratio, so we’ve never looked at changes in staffing as it’s been declining,” she said. “When we’re looking at this, how will it impact programs? Where are we moving it from if we’re keeping class sizes low?”
The other portion of De la Torre’s presentation indicated that 556 inter-district transfer students currently make up 19.21% of SMUSD enrollment, accounting for around $5.6 million of the state revenue stream this year. Regular inter-district transfers — students whose families move out of the district but are allowed to finish their time at their school — represent the most of those at 226. The 124 children of district employees come in second; 117 kids of San Marino business owners are third, followed by 72 students with a parent who works within the district and 17 with a parent who works for the city of San Marino.
De la Torre emphasized that the district “will only take inter-districts if there’s space available” — to avoid compromising efforts to maintain small class sizes — and mentioned that she was at that time preparing to defend the district against a parent who appealed the denial of an inter-district transfer.
The number of students on residency affidavits has remained relatively stable in the past five years, but that of students on caregiver affidavits has fallen considerably since 2017-18.
De la Torre also noted that SMUSD wasn’t alone. Most of the San Gabriel Valley’s school districts have experienced declining enrollment, with some exceptions. Both South Pasadena and La Cañada unified school districts have maintained stable enrollments, de la Torre said, and Duarte Unified School District is experiencing a resurgence after declining so much that it had to close schools.
In addition to declining birthrates nationwide, migration from California is considered a significant factor for the falling student population statewide. Los Angeles County is projected to lose more than 161,000 students within the decade — the steepest decline in the state — in large part because of housing affordability issues. Kern County is expected to grow by nearly 12,000 students, the state said, marking the largest increase in 10 years.
School board vice chair Chris Norgaard pointed out that Sacramento lawmakers have tried and will continue trying to enact laws that strip zoning restrictions in an effort to combat the housing crisis, which could affect San Marino’s steadfast commitment to only single-family housing. He also wondered whether unincorporated county areas around San Marino could be annexed in the future.
Freshman board member Corey Barberie, who in his election campaign last year said nearby private schools were absorbing more and more older students from San Marino, said the district would have to develop innovative programming — similar to how Duarte has — in order to maintain student population.

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