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Exclusive: Where have all the middle school students gone? The key battlefield in LAUSD enrollment drop

Sarah Favot | August 15, 2016

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LA Unified is fighting a costly enrollment slide, and its biggest battleground is middle schools.

As the district has lost 133,000 students since 2006, data show the biggest consistent declines in enrollment outside of high school over the past 10 years occur when students enter sixth grade.

And the drop has become more pronounced in recent years.

“There is this exodus that does happen in the middle school grades,” said school board member Ref Rodriguez. “When you have a choice and an option, parents look for those other options.”

In the 2007-08 school year, there was a 10 percent decrease in the number of sixth-graders enrolled in district schools compared to fifth-graders the year before. Last year, the decline was 16 percent.

During the past 10 years, the district lost more than 41,581 students from fifth to sixth grade. Even after accounting for the growth of charter schools, nearly 15,000 students simply vanished from the public school system. 

The district middle school that saw the biggest decline in enrollment over the past five years was Gage Middle School, though part of the decline was intentional, officials say.

In 2011, 2,569 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders attended the Huntington Park school as of that October, according to district enrollment data. The students were staggered on a year-round calendar because there wasn’t enough room in the school for all of them to attend classes at the same time.

Five years later, at the start of school last fall, enrollment was down to 1,707 students. The school has been on a traditional calendar for three years.

Principal Cesar Quezada said part of the enrollment decline is because the district opened two schools — Walnut Park Middle and Orchard Academies — to ease the overcrowding at Gage.

But another reason Quezada believes that students are leaving Gage Middle School is because of the growth of charter schools.

In terms of the Huntington Park community, there are so many different charter schools in this area,” Quezada said.

Rena Perez, director of LA Unified’s Master Planning and Demographics, said it is unclear why sixth-grade enrollment consistently declines in district schools. She said her office doesn’t track individual students. But charter schools might have an influence.

According to independent charter school enrollment data compiled by LA Unified, there has been a steady and dramatic increase of students in charter schools in sixth grade compared to fifth grade.

In 2015-16, there was a 90 percent increase of sixth-graders enrolled in charter schools compared to fifth-graders the year before.

“It would appear that, yes, there is some increase in enrollment from fifth to sixth grade at charter schools that might account for the decrease in enrollment at district schools,” Perez said.

However, when looking at the raw numbers there is still a portion of students who are leaving district schools and not ending up at charter schools.

For example, there were 41,657 students enrolled in fifth grade in 2014-15 at district schools. The next year, there were 35,125 sixth-graders enrolled at district schools — a loss of 6,532 students.

At independent charter schools, there was an influx of 4,624 students in sixth grade in 2015-16 compared to fifth-graders the year before, which means about 1,900 students left the district schools and went somewhere other than a charter.

When looking at the entire 10 years of enrollment data, 41,581 fifth-graders in district schools did not enroll in sixth grade in district schools. During that timeframe, charters gained 26,748 students in sixth grade who were not enrolled in fifth grade. That meant 14,833 students left the district and did not enroll in an independent charter school authorized by LA Unified.

Rodriguez opened the district’s first charter middle school in 1999 and later co-founded a network of independent charter schools, Partnerships to Uplift Communities, located in northeast Los Angeles and the northeast San Fernando Valley.

“Families were fine with their local neighborhood elementary school. They loved them,” Rodriguez said. “Once they were getting to the place where they were having to make the decision about sending them to a large middle school, they were just having a conflict about that.”

Rodriguez said parents wanted a small, nurturing environment in middle school, like their children had in elementary school. Many charter schools offer smaller class sizes, while middle school classes in district schools are typically 30 to 35 students.

“In my opinion those that have the means go to private and those that have options go to charters,” Rodriguez said.

Gregory Vallone, principal of Mulholland Middle School in Lake Balboa, isn’t convinced that charters are the sole reason for the enrollment slide. He points out that private schools have been scooping up LA Unified students for years.

“I don’t say it’s just charter schools. I think it’s the whole gamut,” he said. “We’ve got to offer the best program we can offer and something that is really going to meet the needs of our school community.”

Robotics has been part of the answer for Mulholland Middle. Vallone will to open the district’s first robotics magnet program at his school when classes begin tomorrow. It will enroll about 220 students.

Vallone also worked to change the culture of the school when he became principal five years ago. In 2008, the school had nearly 1,900 students and was projected to enroll less than 1,000 students next year. Vallone said the school is expected to have 1,450 students enrolled this week.

It didn’t take a “magic pill” to reverse the enrollment decline, Vallone said.

“It’s a multi-faceted approach to problem solving,” he said.

The school implemented restorative justice and allowed teachers to teach an activity they were passionate about in the morning advisory period, such as guitar, dance and Italian. Students can choose which activity they enroll in, Vallone said.

Last year the school was recognized for its high attendance rates, and incidents of school discipline declined, Vallone said.

“We built something that kids wanted to come to,” he said.

Some schools do attempt to make a large middle school feel smaller as well. Quezada said at Gage, students are divided into academies, which students are assigned to in sixth grade and stay in throughout middle school. Academies have different areas of focus, like performing arts and health sciences.

“The whole purpose is just to personalize the learning experience for students,” he said.

Rodriguez also thinks another reason for the enrollment slide is that some families may be moving out of the city and the district’s boundaries, especially working-class families who can find cheaper housing and better schools outside of LA.

A 2007 district analysis of enrollment data and population trends titled “Why is LAUSD’s enrollment declining if the LA region’s population is growing?” found that population growth in LA County (7 percent from 2000 to 2005) does not include households with school-aged children. The study also found that families that had children within LA Unified boundaries were migrating out of LA, likely to San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Since being elected to the board last year, Rodriguez has put a spotlight on middle schools with the establishment of a group focused on “Reimagining the Middle Grades.”

Rodriguez said he wanted to bring attention to the middle school grades because of the decline in enrollment seen in 6th grade in district schools and also because district middle school student test scores aren’t as high as scores in elementary and high school.

One measure, the new student accountability system data developed by six California school districts including LA Unified called the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), found that students in middle school scored an average of 60.35 on the 100-point scale, slightly edging out elementary schools, which averaged 59.1. High schools included in the data scored an average of 65.2.

Read moreLAUSD middle schools in the CORE accountability index: the same old story on race and location applies

A total of 714 LA Unified schools were entered into the CORE system. Independent charter schools were not included, nor were special education centers, early education centers, adult education centers and continuation schools.

District enrollment data show that there is also a decline in enrollment between 9th and 10th, 10th and 11th and 11th and 12th grades in high school. This does not necessarily mean that students are leaving district schools, but it could be that students who enter high school in 9th grade aren’t receiving all the credits they need to be considered a 10th grade student the next school year and the same for 11th and 12th grades, officials said.

Another set of district enrollment data — which shows enrollment at each district and charter school from 2011-12 to 2015-16 — shows that within the past five years, the district has opened a number of magnet programs at the middle school level and a slate of new charter middle schools have opened. The school board has looked to magnet schools to help solve its enrollment problem.

Since 2011-12, 17 new charter middle schools have opened. Eight charter middle schools have closed, bringing the total to 44 charter middle schools operating last year.

Board District 1 in South LA has the highest number of charter middle schools. The most new charter middle schools that have opened since 2011 are located in Board District 7, which includes San Pedro.

There are 83 middle schools in LA Unified. About 57 middle schools have magnet programs, where just a portion of students at the school are enrolled in the magnet program. Since 2011-12, seven such programs have opened, some of which specialize in STEAM or medical and health science. There are four district middle schools where the entire school is a magnet program.

At Gage Middle School, Quezada hopes to expand its magnet program from 280 students to 350 students next school year. The school’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math magnet program was created in 2003. Quezada said there is a waiting list.

The principal also hopes to create a dual language immersion program at the school since some of the feeder elementary schools offer such a program. He hopes that students will be able to continue their language training at the middle school level. Quezada also said Gage offers some STEM classes in the summer and on weekends that are taught by Cal State Dominguez Hills students who are aspiring teachers and supervised by credentialed teachers.

“I think those types of programs will certainly help our particular school be more attractive and be more marketable for our students and parents,” he said. 

Next: The middle schools that gained — and lost — the most.

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