Schools adapt in a shrinking Los Angeles Unified
When music teacher Julio Sequeira attended Belmont High School before graduating in 2002, there was a constant hum that echoed through the school hallways. It was the backdrop to every conversation and school lesson. The Westlake school was home to more than 5,000 students at that point, making it easy to get lost in the craziness of the school day, Sequeira remembers.
But numbers have dwindled since then. Belmont is no longer the largest school in California — though in part due to Los Angeles Unified’s building spree in the early 2000s. The school now enrolls under 600 students and splits its campus with Sal Castro Middle School. A charter school might be added to the campus next year as well.
Now, Sequeira says, that familiar hum is no longer there. Students remain sparse in the three- and four-story buildings the school occupies across the 15-acre campus.
“That was the first thing I noticed when I got back here in 2018 — how quiet it was,” said Sequeira (no relation to reporter).
Though Belmont’s enrollment decline has been significant, it isn’t the only school that is grappling with the issue. Schools across LAUSD have watched their student populations dwindle as birth rates continue to decrease, immigration slows and families move away because of the rising cost of living, particularly housing. Some families have also turned toward charter schools within the district, which have more than doubled their student population over the last two decades to nearly 156,600 in 2019.
These trends are also clear across the state. For the first time in two decades, K-12 enrollment has dropped to under 6 million students.
“It’s just not sustainable,” USC policy, planning and demography professor Dowell Myers said, referring to the enrollment loss of the youngest students.
At its peak 20 years ago, LAUSD enrolled 737,000 students. The district now enrolls 430,000 students, officials reported last week amid predictions that enrollment will continue to drop by another 28% by the 2030-31 academic year. That would be at a significantly faster rate than predictions for both Los Angeles County and California. It’s a reality the district is preparing for financially as it plans the budget for the upcoming fiscal year and reevaluates staffing, programming and priorities. The district’s budget swelled this year to $20 billion due to federal Covid-19 funds, but officials worry about how declining enrollment will affect funding for its nearly 1,000 K-12 schools when the aid runs out.
“I can remember hearing about L.A. becoming the next New York and having an enrollment that would exceed 1 million students,” district CFO David Hart said at a budget presentation to the school board last week. “Now we are at the point in time where we are forecasting for a third of that student population.”
As part of Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s 100-day plan, the district is currently analyzing enrollment trends as well as taking a look at where students have gone as it makes plans to attract families back to LAUSD schools. But, given the number of students the district has lost, it’s clear that its future will look very different from its past.
“We will have to navigate through difficult but important conversations and decisions in order not only to plan for the future, but also to ensure that, during a very unstable and unsustainable set of practices and processes, we come out the other end on solid footing without compromising the viability of our school district,” he said at the board meeting.
Schools like South L.A.’s Trinity Street Elementary School and Central L.A.’s Pio Pico Middle School have felt some of the more drastic impacts of enrollment decline. Both schools have been threatened with closures while navigating some of the largest drops in enrollment in the district. Though LAUSD confirms both will remain open through next school year, Pio Pico will not welcome a new class of sixth graders in August, according to district documents.
In addition, Westchester’s Orville Wright Middle School may face displacement as LAUSD considers handing over its campus to a charter school and moving the 417-person school to a Westchester high school campus.
“The main way that school districts adapt is by closing the schools and consolidating, which is very disruptive,” USC professor Myers said, referring to enrollment declines. “Communities and people hate that, but [districts] kind of have to.”
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Amid the pandemic
The pandemic has just exacerbated the student exodus. Experts across the state had hoped numbers would bounce back this year after learning largely returned to in-person instruction, but statewide data released by the state in April shows a minimal increase statewide with wide fluctuations from one end of the state to the other.
Across LAUSD, Amanecer Primary Center in East L.A. has faced the steepest enrollment decline over the pandemic, having dropped by 44% to just under 100 students between 2019 and 2021. Loyola Village Elementary School in Westchester saw the steepest drop among K-5 schools at 40%.
Other LAUSD schools, like Independence Elementary School in South Gate, have seen a drop in enrollment during the pandemic nearly equivalent to the loss they saw between 2000 and 2019. The elementary school lost about a third of its students over both periods of time.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, it worsened existing trends, Myers said. More people were moving out of the county than moving in as families searched for more affordable places to live. Some returned home to other states or countries where they felt more comfortable navigating the pandemic, he said. The number of people moving in from other states and countries also fell.
“We’re really not getting replenishment, and people are fleeing, so we have a gap,” Myers said. “Actual total population is declining now for the first time. That total decline is heavily concentrated among kids.”
At Parmelee Avenue Elementary School, Principal Lisa Saldivar has observed just that. She’s watched families move from the Florence-Firestone neighborhood of South L.A. not only to cheaper inland regions of California but also to the Midwest. Others, she said, have returned home to countries like Mexico and Honduras, where they felt more comfortable navigating the pandemic.
The school lost 14% of its students between 2019 and 2021, but more students have started to trickle in since the start of the school year, some of whom are students returning from LAUSD’s online learning. The elementary school opened a new kindergarten class in April following spring break to accommodate new students, Saldivar said. Enrollment is up to 738 from the 697 recorded in October.
“We’ve had quite a big jump in the number of new enrollees as well as students who are withdrawing, so the lack of consistency in students, I think, has been really noticed,” Saldivar said.
Student enrollment also fluctuates greatly at Belmont, known as a destination for students who are new to the country. The school is no stranger to welcoming new students throughout the academic year, many of whom are navigating a new place for the first time and are sometimes on their own, Principal Elsa Mendoza said.
Belmont, along with many other LAUSD schools, has also conducted its fair share of home visits as a result of the pandemic. The school’s administrator of attendance and counselors are tasked with reaching out to students to encourage them to return to school.
“We’ve recovered many students who have been thinking about just focusing on work and not coming to school,” Mendoza said, as she spoke of the options available to students struggling to come to school. She said students may either return to Belmont or get referred to a continuation school that can help them address credit deficiencies and support them if they also need to work.
The same has been the case at Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy, where there is now a pupil services and attendance counselor five days a week, up from once a week. The counselor visits homes twice a month once she and other teachers notice long absences and phone calls aren’t successful.
Growing and adapting
As enrollment in many of LAUSD’s public schools continues to drop, Carvalho has promised to invest equitably in expanding programs and opportunities across all district ZIP codes since joining LAUSD in February. He said he wants Advanced Placement and honors classes to be available as well as chances to interact more with STEM and other learning pathways. As superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools for 14 years, that largely took the shape of expanding school choice through magnet and charter schools.
LAUSD will finalize its strategic plan in June, which will largely dictate the district’s funding priorities over the coming years. It is expected to incorporate conclusions from Carvalho’s 100-day plan, which includes a review of the district’s offerings, and will align with the budget due next month.
For now, schools have taken their own measures to bolster enrollment. In the Vermont Square neighborhood of South L.A., Obama Global Preparation Academy has actively pushed to expand its school as a way to ensure it has adequate funding to support its students.
Despite seeing a 71% drop in enrollment between opening in 2010 and 2019, Obama Global Preparation Academy saw an uptick in students during the pandemic. However, the growth isn’t due to an increase of middle schoolers but rather to an expansion of grade levels. Principal Travis Holden said he expects the school to enroll sixth through 12th grade by 2023-24 with a goal to expand to 700-800 students from the current 425.
“Those numbers will help us with the number of resources that we’re wanting to offer our students,” he said, adding that he hoped more funds would pay for their psychiatric social worker, pupil services and attendance counselor and other support services as well as allow the school to offer more sports and activities across the grades.
The school began its expansion last year amid the pandemic with ninth grade and followed with 10th this year. Just 21 sophomores were enrolled by October, a drastic difference from the 101 students it averages across its other four grade levels, but Holden expects the grade to grow just as ninth grade has since it launched. For now, its three-story concrete buildings also house Russell Westbrook charter.
Still, the small school size is welcomed by faculty and staff on campus, who say it’s made it easier to connect with students.
“We’re able to target our different groups like ELs [English learners], our students that are in foster care or students that are experiencing homelessness,” said magnet coordinator and instructional coach Rosa Rosa, who’s worked at the school since it opened. “We’re able to target those groups a little more and focus on and provide resources for those students.”
At Belmont, Mendoza is hoping that the school’s new offerings will also allow the school to grow. Belmont launched its Internationals Network Academy in the fall that’s meant to provide support to immigrants and English language learners. The academy is currently open to freshmen but will slowly grow to encompass all high school grade levels.
Language development classes have begun to be integrated into other courses to give English learners the opportunity to complete their A-G courses and take electives, Mendoza said. So far, the freshman language development course has been waived, and the school plans to get the sophomore course waived next year as the academy enrolls its first class of 10th graders.
That accommodation has given Luis Sarat Perez, who came to L.A. from Guatemala, the opportunity to take guitar, something that he’s greatly enjoyed along with the guidance he’s received from teachers.
“In whatever we need, they support us,” he said in Spanish.
Students have participated in auto shop and art as well as the recently revived music program Mendoza pushed for. That’s what Sequeira returned to help launch when he became the music teacher in 2018.
For senior Bianca Urias, Belmont’s elective offerings have exposed her to new opportunities like photography, a hobby she stumbled into after being placed in the elective class. Since then, her work has been showcased at events like the school’s Empowerment Celebration, where she shared a photo of her dad’s hands hard at work.
“I’d never really thought of photography as something I’d be into,” she said. “So taking the class and taking the picture and seeing how it came out and it being showcased made me realize I really liked doing it.”
In part because of what’s been done to adapt, Saldivar said Parmelee Avenue’s school community has flourished, something both Mendoza and Holden echo about their own schools. At Parmelee Avenue, some families remain connected to the school across generations. Despite not living nearby, alumni like Stephanie Ramirez make the effort to remain connected to the school.
Her family makes the hour-plus trip from Hacienda Heights to Florence-Firestone each morning for her two kids to attend the school. During the school day, Ramirez works as a supervision aide at the school, a job she picked up three years ago after volunteering extensively at the school.
“It’s appreciated as a parent, that I can come in and see my kids and feel my kids are in good hands,” she said. “If I’m not coming in, I know my kids will be OK.”
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