L.A. Unified enrollment drops by more than 27,000 students, steepest decline in years

Los Angeles, CA - August 16: First day of school at Los Angeles Unified School District in Daniel Webster Middle School on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. Los Angeles Unified Interim Superintendent Megan K. Reilly, Board Members and special guests celebrate the first day of instruction on August 16, welcoming students, teachers, principals, school site employees and families, while visiting special programs and classrooms at each site. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Students gather in class at Daniel Webster Middle School with LAUSD Interim Supt. Megan K. Reilly. Enrollment is down more than expected in the school system. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Enrollment in the Los Angeles Unified School District has dropped by more than 27,000 students since last year, a decline of close to 6% — a much steeper slide than in any recent year.

The comparison is based on an annual count referred to as "norm day," the fifth Friday of every new school year, Sept. 17 this year. Last year's enrollment total for pre-school through 12th grade was 466,229. This year's figure for that same date is 439,013, according to data provided by L.A. Unified that will be presented to the school board Tuesday.

Other data released by L.A. Unified indicates other potential concerns. The district estimates that between 70% and 80% of the school staff are on target to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the district's deadline of Oct. 15, indicating that thousands of employees face termination, which would exacerbate another problem: more than 2,000 unfilled jobs.

"We’re still seeing the impact of COVID," said Veronica Arreguin, the district's chief strategy officer, about the enrollment decline. Arreguin also noted that much of the decline was expected, in line with many years of dropping enrollment related to lower birth rates, families moving to more affordable areas and other factors.

Even so, the shortfall is three times what planners in the nation's second-largest school district predicted. The district plans to act aggressively to understand what is happening and what to do about it.

“If it’s something we can change," Arreguin said, "we need to change.”

The decline is not unique to L.A. Unified.

Enrollment dropped across the nation last year as families and school systems grappled with a pandemic that shut down in-person instruction for much of the year in most places and also prompted worried families to keep children at home when they had a choice to go back.

Statewide, enrollment in K-12 public schools fell by almost 3%, or 160,000, students last year, according to data from the California Department of Education. That was the largest drop of the last 20 years, surpassing a 1% drop between October 2008 and October 2009. More than a third of that decline was due to a lower enrollment in kindergarten.

The causes are varied, with economic factors at play — the high cost of living, including gentrification, has pushed families farther from the once-affordable urban core and also from adjacent suburbs served by L.A. Unified. Another factor has been limits on immigration, which used to funnel a steady supply of families with young children into L.A. Unified. The pandemic's influence is difficult to pinpoint and measure.

For the 2020-21 school year, with campuses closed because of the pandemic, kindergarten enrollment declined by almost 6,000 students from the previous year, with many families dissatisfied with kindergartners having to attend class online. In a more typical year, the number of kindergarten students would have declined by about 2,000.

Unexpectedly large declines in the younger grades continued this year and, to a lesser degree, affected middle schools as well, said Tony Atienza, the district's director of budget services and financial planning.

The overall enrollment decline in L.A. Unified last year was about 4% — compared to about 2% in recent pre-pandemic times.

"The enrollment in Los Angeles public schools has declined steadily over the last two decades due to a number of factors including outmigration of young families to the Inland Empire and other areas outside the boundaries of LAUSD and a decline in immigration," UCLA education Professor John Rogers said. "Alongside this general decline in enrollment, the last two decades have seen growth in the proportion of students enrolling in charter schools and a relative decline in the proportion of students attending non-charter schools in LAUSD."

The current decline also is affecting Los Angeles-area charter schools, some charter and district officials said. However, during the 2020-21 school year, charter school enrollment in California rose about 2.3%, according to a recent report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. One Los Angeles charter, Public Policy Charter School, south of downtown, is set to close Friday due what its board members described as irreversible low enrollment.

The decline will put additional pressure on many L.A. Unified schools struggling to attract enough students to remain open. Schools are funded mainly on enrollment and attendance and have many fixed costs even when enrollment — and the funding that follows — goes down. L.A. schools will be spared most of this fallout in the short term because the district has been flooded with COVID-relief funding.

It's still something to worry about, said school Board Member Tanya Ortiz Franklin.

"I’m very concerned about declining enrollment, especially for our highest-need students, small schools, and the overall fiscal health of our district," Franklin said. Some schools and programs, she added, have reversed the trend through promotion, neighborhood canvassing and special after-school offerings.

A separate ongoing problem is that the district can't find enough applicants to fill vacancies in key teaching, mental health and nursing posts as well as maintenance jobs. In a report prepared for Tuesday's board meeting, officials note they have 622 teacher vacancies. And, as of Sept. 20, 39% of the teachers working with the 15,000 students in remote learning were substitutes.

The district also is seeking 334 building and grounds workers, 189 licensed vocational nurses, more than 300 instructional aides, more than 600 psychiatric social workers, 272 teachers for a special program to accelerate math and English in young students below grade level.

Meanwhile, the Oct. 15 deadline is nearing for all L.A. Unified employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Compared with the nation at large, the district's vaccination rate is impressive, but about 1 in 5 employees could face losing their jobs based on the number of workers currently immunized.

A vaccination deadline also is looming for students 12 and older. Students who wish to participate in any school-affiliated extracurricular activity must receive their dose of the two-shot regimen by Oct. 3.

Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.