LAUSD schools lost more students than expected this year

Students at Leland Street Elementary School in Los Angeles' San Pedro neighborhood work on a writing assignment on Aug. 21, 2017.
Students at Leland Street Elementary School in Los Angeles' San Pedro neighborhood work on a writing assignment on Aug. 21, 2017.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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The Los Angeles Unified School District's student enrollment numbers have decreased again, and a new headcount shows this year's drop was slightly bigger than district officials had anticipated.

Instead of losing around 10,000 students — as originally forecast — L.A. Unified's final enrollment count was down by 13,000 students compared to last year, the district's chief financial officer Scott Price said.

In the short term, district officials project the discrepancy will cost L.A. Unified an additional $17 million in revenues generated by student attendance — yet another hit to the district's $7.5 billion operating budget.

But in the longer term, the new headcount will do nothing to quell anxieties about whether L.A. Unified officials are doing enough to reverse a decade-and-a-half-long trend of enrollment decline.

"Besides asking people to have more children and fixing the housing crisis, what can we be doing?" school board member Nick Melvoin asked at a meeting last Tuesday.






In his statement, Melvoin hinted at the factors that are often raised to explain the decline of L.A. Unified's enrollment from its peak in 2002: the county's birthrate has dipped in recent years; the rising cost of living in L.A. has forced families out of the city; gentrification is changing the neighborhoods the district serves.

But parents are also choosing schools other than L.A. Unified. In the face of the same broader demographic trends, publicly-funded charter schools — which are run by outside groups, not the school district — are expected to add another 4,000 students to their rolls this year.

Among the strategies district officials are exploring to reverse the enrollment decline: making it easier for parents to choose L.A. Unified schools. Superintendent Michelle King has said she wants to expand popular L.A. Unified "pathways," such as magnet schools, dual language programs, pilot schools or career programs.

And this year, the district has launched its first version of a universal enrollment system, an online "one-stop shop" website that will — when fully operational — allow parents to browse school options for their students and apply for them all with a single form.

Universal enrollment will be a "game-changer," said L.A. Unified acting superintendent Vivian Ekchian. (She's temporarily running the district while King is home on medical leave.)

"You may not see the enrollment increase immediately," Ekchian told school board members on Tuesday. "But the quality of programs and the variety of programs that really provide choices to our students, we expect we’ll be able to change enrollment decline to enrollment increase."

But board members also pushed for a deeper, neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis of enrollment changes — because some schools have seen increases in their student counts.

Board member Kelly Gonez noted a blue-ribbon panel studying the district's finances recommended doing this enrollment deep-dive two years ago: "It would be great if we could get started on that soon," she said.

"We have to understand that families are choosing and we have to be able to respond to that, not just after the fact," said board president Mónica García.

Melvoin also requested an update from a task force of district officials studying student attendance — after all, it's student attendance, not enrollment, that directly determines a school's funding. He said the board hasn't been kept in the loop about that task force's work.