The first few weeks of the 2017 school year were a bit rough at La Jolla’s public schools, with enrollment down across the board. As the doors opened in August, fewer-than-expected students arrived, leading to some scrambling, schedule rearranging, potential loss of teachers and more.
The principals of La Jolla’s five public schools — Bird Rock Elementary, La Jolla Elementary, Torrey Pines Elementary, Muirlands Middle and La Jolla High schools — discussed the challenging start at the first La Jolla Cluster Association meeting of the year, Oct. 19 at Muirlands Middle School.
Teachers explained that each school receives a San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) enrollment projection and the elementary schools conduct a survey asking families if they plan to have their child (children) return or go elsewhere. For every 30 students, the school is allocated one teacher.
At La Jolla Elementary, the enrollment drop put one teacher’s position in jeopardy. Principal Donna Tripi reported that the count was down by 30 students. “I was two students away from losing a teacher and sweating it out. Luckily, two students showed up at the 11th hour and I was able to get some sleep.”
Bird Rock Elementary Principal Amanda Hale reported: “We’re good. We have lower numbers in third grade, but we’re bursting at the seams for TK (transitional kindergarten) through second grade.”
Torrey Pines Elementary Principal Sarah Ott said the school was “only down by a few students,” but the number of fifth-grade classes decreased. “We have two this year, when we normally have three or four. But we had the teachers we needed for enrollment.”
However, at Muirlands Middle School, the enrollment drop required some “creative” rearranging, which resulted in smaller class sizes. At nearly 60 students short, Muirlands was faced with losing two teachers and the grade that would have been most affected was sixth, Principal Harlan Klein said.
“Our numbers suggested we’d be at 1,065 students, but when we opened, we were hovering at 1,007. We came up with a plan and worked with our Foundation. The Foundation has a reserve for teacher adjustment and it carries over year after year, so this year, the board decided to exercise the use of that money so we didn’t have to restructure the entire school. There would have been hundreds of schedule changes,” Klein said. “Where it stands now, we are enjoying what I consider dramatic class size reduction. We have class sizes in the 20s, which is unheard of in a middle school. We didn’t have to move any students because we didn’t lose any teachers.”
La Jolla High School, faced with a similar situation, took the opposite approach. Said Principal Chuck Podhorsky: “We built our master schedule around 1,600 students, which was a little over our projections. When the doors opened up, we ended up shorter than anticipated. Instead of exhausting the Foundation coffers, we made the decision to ‘right-size.’ So we had some schedule changes for students, and it wasn’t fun for our students and their families, but we made it through.”
Podhorsky attributed the enrollment drop to students going to private schools and moving out of the area. Klein added that SDUSD bus schedule changes left more students with the responsibility of providing their own transportation. Through SDUSD’s Voluntary Enrollment Exchange Program (VEEP), students may attend schools other than their neighborhood schools and transportation may be provided. But the number of feeder schools that can provide transportation to La Jolla High or Muirlands Middle decreased. “We lost more students this year due to transportation changes than anything else,” Klein said.
SDUSD executive director of financial planning and development, Debbie Foster, added the decrease in enrollment is district-wide. “Attendance is how we get our money … so if enrollment is down, that’s another thing that impacts our financials,” she said. “The tricky thing this year is that our projections are usually pretty spot on and we use those for budget projections. By being down in enrollment, we’re feeling the pain this year.”