School district looks to address declining enrollment, demographic changes
The number of students at Dunbar Elementary School has been declining over the last eight years, and will continue to decline over the next five years, according to a report presented at the Sonoma Valley Board of Education meeting on Sept. 17.
The student performance report and student population forecast by Davis Demographics and Planning, were discussed at length during the meeting, as Sonoma Valley Unified School District (SVUSD) has hired the public-school consulting firm to analyze the changing demographic trends with an eye toward helping the district plan for the future use of its facilities. The board is currently in a fact-finding phase and no proposals or decisions have been made at this point. However, the data reflect some significant shifts in population and demographics since the district last undertook this kind of work 18 years ago in 2001.
Birth rates in Sonoma Valley are down, a trend being felt across the state with the so-called “graying of California.” Additionally, the number of families in the district who choose to send their kids to the school near where they live (their “home school”) is low. There are more Dunbar area kids going to Flowery Elementary School than Flowery area kids, noted Board Trustee John Kelly.
This decline in enrollment is not exclusive to Dunbar; it mirrors an overall trend across the five elementary schools in SVUSD, which have seen a more than 11 percent decline in overall student population since 2010, from 1,898 in 2010-2011 to 1,679 in 2017-2018. However, it is acute at some of the schools more than others, Dunbar and Sassarini in particular, which have seen enrollment drop from 325 to 194 at Dunbar and 450 to 325 at Sassarini (a 40.31 percent and 27.78 percent decline, respectively) between 2001 and 2018.
SVUSD has also seen a marked growth in the number of Latino students (76 percent since 2001), an 80 percent increase in the number of English learners in the district, and a 69 percent increase in the number of students classified as “economically disadvantaged.”
The whys behind these changes – and how to address them – are not immediately clear or simple and will continue to be a topic of board discussion over the next few months and well into next year.
“Tonight we are looking at what are the structural decisions we’ve made for our students, how our students attend our schools and how much more information would the board need to have a conversation about that,” said SVUSD Superintendent Socorro Shiels.
The schools’ demographics in some way look like they do because of lines drawn by the district, pointed out Shiels. “Does the way we’ve drawn lines of who goes to each school, does that look the way we want? Because we can change that.”
Having data like this will no doubt put the topics of school boundaries – their necessity or not – as well as the topic of school choice under the microscope at some point.
“If all our schools were equal and people were truly choosing a ‘choice school’ because it offered something unique like a dual immersion program, that’s a real choice, but people flocking to a school because of the perception that one is better than the other, people abandoning or creating default schools via misinformation or misguided perceptions, is a real concern to me,” said Board Trustee, and former Dunbar Elementary School Principal, Melanie Blake.
The board’s next meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 1, will be devoted to interviewing and appointing a trustee to represent the Dunbar attendance area. Longtime trustee Nicole Ducarroz announced her retirement last month.
Student performance and outcomes, plus an overview of the preschools within the district, will be the topic of a special morning study session on Oct. 5. The board will return to a deeper discussion of the data from Davis Demographic at its Nov. 5 board meeting, which begins at 5:30 p.m. A video of the Sept. 17 discussion can be viewed at Sonoma TV’s YouTube Channel (www.youtube.com/user/SonomaTV). Shiels welcomes any comments via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.