Oakland High School's sign at its main entrance encouraging families to sign up for school. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland Unified School District is seeing drops in enrollment and attendance this school year that could result in less funding for the district in future years. 

While the school district has faced declining enrollment for the past few years, the lower attendance rates this year are particularly stark. Since OUSD, like all California school districts, receives funding from the state based on its students’ average daily attendance (ADA), fewer students attending school means less money for schools. Absences are more pronounced this year because of the pandemic and positive COVID cases forcing students to quarantine at home. Some families have also chosen to keep their students home even when it isn’t required by the district’s COVID guidelines, also contributing to the lower attendance rates.  

On Aug. 23, the 11th day of school, OUSD recorded 34,970 students, which is 623 fewer students than were enrolled on the 11th day of the 2020-2021 school year. The biggest drops were in the elementary grades. In first through fifth grade, the district has lost more than 800 students, said superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell at a recent school board meeting. 

“Our enrollment will continue to grow in the coming weeks, but we will likely remain below our enrollment from last year,” she said. “We’ve been doing some checking with surrounding districts and many of our surrounding districts are seeing similar trends and enrollment decline.”

In kindergarten, however, OUSD has made gains: The district enrolls 2,869 kindergarten students, which is 120 more than the district had last year at this time. 

Sonali Murarka, OUSD’s executive director of enrollment and charter schools, pointed to a few reasons for this. For one, the enrollment process has become more streamlined, making it easier for families to apply online and receive an offer quickly. 

In addition, the district has specific student-to-teacher ratios it must adhere to across elementary school grades from transitional kindergarten to third grade. Since there are fewer students enrolled in other elementary grades, OUSD can offer more kindergarten seats while still maintaining that ratio, Murarka said. In the past, the district has had wait lists for kindergarten because of the ratio limits. Lastly, there are some families who would have enrolled their child in kindergarten last year who held off until this year so their student could attend in-person school, which could also account for some of the boost. 

For sixth and ninth grade, OUSD is seeing fairly flat enrollment. There are 41 fewer students in sixth grade compared with this time last year, and 33 more ninth graders this year. The enrollment office staff typically puts a heavy focus on the transition grades, which are kindergarten, sixth, and ninth. This year’s data may cause them to re-evaluate their recruitment strategies, Murarka said.

“We were happy to see when we pulled those numbers that we’re up in kindergarten and basically about stable in ninth and sixth grade, and those are the places where our office is typically very involved,” she said. “It’s still such an anomalous year, but we do need to start thinking about it as a district … Do we need to shift some of our strategy, rather than just getting new kids in the door, to how do we retain kids from year to year?”

‘We didn’t want to go down that road’

While it’s still too early to draw major conclusions about where the families who left the district went, many likely made the same decision as Koren Temple Perry, whose daughter was in kindergarten last year at Crocker Highlands Elementary School. Her daughter did distance learning for most of the year, until elementary school students were able to come back a few days a week beginning in March. Being around other kids her age for a few hours a week made a huge difference in her daughter’s mood, Temple Perry said. 

The year had been tough. Temple Perry had to cut back on her work so she could take care of her daughter, hired a babysitter and enrolled her daughter, an only child, in other safe extracurriculars so she could have some social interaction. After hearing from friends whose kids were enrolled in private schools and had been learning in person for most of the 2020-2021 school year without any outbreaks, Temple Perry and her husband decided to explore private schools.

“In the summer, we made the decision that we were going to put her in private school,” she said, and they went with Corpus Christi School in Piedmont. “Things were surging with new variants, and we didn’t want to go down that road with schools potentially being closed, the politics of the situation, and our family facing the same year all over again but for first grade.”

District staff are working to reach more of those families to learn about their decisions, Murarka said. And the initial district enrollment numbers could still change, as there are students on the waitlist for OUSD’s Sojourner Truth independent study program. While many of those students may already be enrolled in OUSD, there are some who aren’t, and if they’re admitted to the program they could boost the district’s overall enrollment. 

In October, the district will submit its official enrollment numbers to the state.

‘There’s just not a really good educational option right now’

District officials are also worried about lagging attendance numbers this year. For transitional kindergarten to fifth grade, attendance is at 89%, for middle school it’s at 93%, and high school attendance is at 89%. Historically, the district has hovered around 94% for attendance, said Lisa Grant-Dawson, OUSD’s chief budget officer. At a school board budget meeting this week, she underscored the importance of maintaining a high attendance rate this year, since it will affect budget planning for next year. 

“We’re projecting to see a wider gap between enrollment and attendance. Yes, the pandemic had a lot to do with that,” she said. “But if we could increase our attendance by 2%, and really push that, that would create significant gains in our revenue.”

The pandemic has likely led to the lower attendance rates this year, especially in elementary school. Oakland parent Misa Takaki has been keeping her second grader home from school since the first week of class. Both of her children have asthma, and her family had lots of reservations about returning to in-person school this year. OUSD required families to indicate their plan for the fall by early July, around the same time that the delta variant was starting to become dominant in California, so she chose to keep her son enrolled at Sequoia because they live near the school and have strong relationships with the families there. But he wasn’t in school for very long.

“He went to only four days of school this year and he’s been at home since then,” Takaki said. “There’s just not a really good educational option right now.”

When there was a positive case at the school during the first week, Takaki chose to keep her son home the next day. As she read more about the district’s COVID procedures, like having students eat indoors in the cafeteria, not quarantining a class until there are three linked cases, and no regular, required testing of students or staff, she decided to keep him home indefinitely. OUSD has since expanded its testing procedures to require all unvaccinated staff to test weekly, and will be offering testing to everyone, including students, every other week.

One thing that would make Takaki feel more comfortable is if the district required everyone to be tested weekly. But since that hasn’t been implemented, she is instead choosing short-term independent study, which allows her son to stay enrolled at Sequoia while doing remote learning for up to 15 days this school year. Once that runs out, she’ll have a tough decision to make. And with the Sojourner Truth program waitlisting students, that’s an unlikely option for the family as well.

“It seems like my days are going to run out and then I’m probably going to have to unenroll him from Sequoia. I can’t just keep racking up unexcused absences,” she said. Students receive unexcused absences if their families keep them home when it isn’t required by the COVID protocols. 

About 19% of transitional kindergarten students and 17% of kindergarten students were absent from school on Aug. 23, Johnson-Trammell said last week. This year, the absence rate for elementary schools is around 11.2% at this point in the year, compared with 3.4% at this point in 2019. For middle schoolers, absence rates are at about 7.1% so far this year, compared with 3.5% in 2019, and in high school, students are absent about 11.4% of the time, while in 2019 the absence rate was at about 5.9%.

The state’s local control funding formula (LCFF) provides base amounts to school districts based on their ADA, and those base amounts typically see cost-of-living increases from year to year. But the district’s enrollment is declining faster than the cost of living increases, Grant-Dawson said, which leads to a gap. 

According to the 2021-2022 budget that was approved in June, the district expects about $398 million in LCFF funding. That funding is based on the district’s ADA from the 2019-2020 school year, which state law allowed the district to use because of the pandemic. But next school year’s budget will be based on attendance from this school year, Grant-Dawson said. In projections that she presented on Tuesday, LCFF funding could drop to about $394 million for the 2022-2023 school year. 

“Our change in ADA and enrollment is moving faster than any increases to the rates with the local control funding formula. And that’s been occurring over time, but it’s reaching a pressing point of us not being able to rebalance it,” she said.

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.