In Partnership with 74

Overall enrollment is down, but LA Unified has the same number of kindergarteners as 9 years ago, data show

Sarah Favot | July 25, 2016

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As those inside the district voice a repeated refrain that declining enrollment will likely plunge LA Unified into bankruptcy, new data show it still attracted nearly the same number of kindergarten students last year as it had nine years earlier when it had 133,000 more students overall.

The data come as a surprise amid declining enrollment as the county’s birth rate has dwindled and parents have opted to send their kids elsewhere as charter schools proliferate and many suburban school districts continue to outperform LA Unified.

In 2006-07, the district had 49,896 kindergarteners enrolled as of the October “norm day” an enrollment count used to allocate resources and funding from the state. Nine years later, 49,289 students were enrolled in kindergarten at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, the data show.

School board member Monica Garcia highlighted these numbers at the last special meeting the board held aimed at tackling its long-term financial situation. She expressed hope that the district can hang on to those students through graduation.

“Let’s keep them,” Garcia said of the kindergarteners.

But the data show, so far, the district isn’t.

The class of 2006-07 kindergarten students, has turned into 36,876 ninth-grade students in 2015-16, a 26 percent decrease. The students will graduate in 2018-19.

And the data show the decline is happening as early as first grade. The number of district kindergarteners who have gone on to first grade has decreased over the past five years, plummeting 17 percent just last year.

In a memo to the Board of Education, Chief Facilities Executive Mark Hovatter, whose office compiled the data, wrote that the increases in kindergarten enrollment “may not be a true indication of future enrollment growth.” He said transitional kindergarten has led to an increase in kindergarten enrollment.

Transitional kindergarten students are included in the kindergarten data, although district officials did not say how many of those students were in transitional kindergarten. So it is unclear how much transitional kindergarten has affected the numbers.

Transitional kindergarten was established by the state Legislature in 2010. It essentially created a two-year kindergarten program.  Teachers must have a credential, the curriculum is a “modified” version of the kindergarten curriculum and students are generally in school for a full day. Since implementation in 2012, the state rolled back the eligibility date one month each year from Dec. 2 to Sept. 2. Now students can be enrolled in transitional kindergarten if their 5th birthday falls between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. If a student turns 5 on or before Sept. 1, the student enrolls in kindergarten.

“It increases the total pool of children that are counted to be in kindergarten,” said Rena Perez, director of the district’s Master Planning and Demographics.

Transitional kindergarten was piloted in the district in the 2010-11 school year, with 36 classrooms. The following year, the transitional kindergarten program grew to 109 classrooms, and it has continued to expand.

Carola Matera, an assistant professor at Cal State Channel Islands’ School of Education who specializes in early childhood education, said she believes transitional kindergarten has a big impact on enrollment numbers.

She said parents who might have opted to send their child to private school are attracted back to the public school district by transitional kindergarten. She said because transitional kindergarten teachers must be credentialed and receive professional development and support, the program is more attractive for parents than some private school options.

“All of this builds a level of confidence to go back to the public school system to take advantage of it,” Matera said.

She also said transitional kindergarten was highly marketed in Los Angeles, especially to Latino parents, and in the media when it was implemented.

“The other aspect of this is that for parents who would have gone to private schooling, they saw this as an opportunity to start early,” Matera said.

No one can say for certain whether the district’s kindergarten enrollment would be declining without transitional kindergarten, but the data shed light on the trends.

The number of kindergarten students decreased 6 percent from 2006-07 to its lowest point in 2010-11 with 46,934 students. Then, after transitional kindergarten began, the number of kindergarten students steadily increased every year since to 49,289 in 2015-16.

In contrast, the number of kindergarten students enrolled in charter schools steadily increased over the 10-year period, as the number of charter schools in the district grew. From 2006-07 to 2015-16, the number of children enrolled in kindergarten increased 179 percent from 2,556 to 7,131 students.

Kindergarten is not mandatory in California, so some parents don’t enroll their child in school until first grade. Before transitional kindergarten was implemented, the district saw a jump in the number of students that enrolled in first grade compared to kindergarten.

Dean Tagawa, who heads the district’s Early Childhood Education program, said one reason for the boost in kindergarten enrollment could be that more parents are opting to enroll their children now that the district has a two-year kindergarten program. Parents who might have kept their children out of kindergarten for a year because they felt their child wasn’t ready are now enrolling their kids in transitional kindergarten, he said.

“We know there’s a group of parents that really like the idea of having a ‘TK’ option, in the past they might not have utilized kindergarten,” Tagawa said.

Matera said it’s too early to determine what impact transitional kindergarten had on whether parents opt to keep their child in the school district for first grade.

The number of first-graders in the district has fallen 22 percent since 2006-07, according to the data. From 2006-07 to 2009-10 there was a small increase in the number of students who attended first grade from kindergarten. But in 2010-11, the opposite trend occurred. The number of first-grade students as compared to the previous year’s kindergarten students dropped each year. Part of the reason for that drop could be because of the expansion of transitional kindergarten — students are staying in kindergarten for two years and so some of the kindergarten students in the data are not eligible for first grade.

The Independent Financial Review panel assembled last year that released a report in November addressed declining enrollment and made several recommendations about ways to increase enrollment.

The panel of outside experts found several reasons for the district’s declining enrollment, which has dropped 100,000 students over the past six years. The group estimated that about half of the enrollment loss is due to increased enrollments in charter schools. The remaining loss could be attributed to declining birth rate, students dropping out of school and students moving to other school districts, the panel said in its report.

Data from LA County show the birth rate has fallen dramatically in the last 20 years. In 1990, there were 204,124 births throughout the county. In 2011, there were 130,312 births, according to a briefing from the Department of Public Health’s Office of Health Assessment & Epidemiology.

The health department also found that the number of children under age 10 living in the county has fallen nearly 17 percent since 2000.

The study pointed to a number of factors for the declining birth rate, including a decline of people migrating into LA County and an increase in the number of people migrating out of LA County, likely caused by the recession; a rise in unemployment; changes in contraception methods used by women; women getting married at an older age, and an increase in the proportion of women who don’t have children.

Birth rates have decreased for mothers from all racial backgrounds, the study found.

The Independent Financial Review panel gave the district and school board a number of recommendations on how to improve enrollment. It recommended that the district focus on which students are leaving the district and why. It said that any improvements the district made in reversing the trend of declining enrollment “must start with analysis of which students are being lost, at which grade levels, at which schools and why.”

Amid the expansion of independent charter schools in Los Angeles, the district has taken steps to attract more students and their parents to LA Unified, including expanding magnet programs, opening pilot schools with smaller enrollment and expanding dual-language program offerings. The district hosted a forum this past weekend on sharing best practices between pilots, magnets and charter schools.

The Independent Financial Review panel recommended that district officials do extensive follow-up with students and parents who have opted to leave the district. LA Unified has said it will conduct surveys of those leaving the district.

Garcia, who is the school board’s longest-serving member, said she believes there are many reasons why students are leaving and those reasons vary across the diverse district.

She said she thinks the absence of student achievement across the district has contributed to the decline in enrollment, as well as families that opt to send their children to schools with smaller class sizes, the declining birth rate and the exodus of families from Los Angeles amid the housing crisis.

“I think it’s great that we’re interested in learning what is happening with the families,” she said.

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