first grade students sitting on the rug in class at lighthouse community charter school
Students at Lighthouse Community Charter school sit on the rug in Rachel Albrecht's first grade class. Credit: David Meza

Over the past few years, enrollment in public schools across Oakland and most parts of California has been declining—often a result of families choosing different schooling options during the pandemic, or moving to less-expensive areas. Because funding for California schools is tied to attendance, it’s a trend that has negative implications for school districts. 

In Oakland Unified School District, enrollment losses have translated to school closures, layoffs, and budget cuts. But district schools aren’t the only public schools in Oakland contending with shrinking enrollment. The number of students attending charter schools has also been decreasing—and at a higher rate than OUSD.

From the 2020-2021 school year to the 2021-2022 school year, public school enrollment in Oakland overall (both district schools and charters) dropped by about 4%, according to data from the California Department of Education. But while OUSD schools declined by about 3%, Oakland charter school enrollment dropped by nearly 8%, from 13,215 to 12,172 students. 

As a result, some charter leaders have joined district leaders in pressuring state lawmakers to shift the funding formula away from attendance, especially as the pandemic has led to more student absences. 

The number of charter schools in Oakland has also decreased in the past few years. There were 45 as recently as the 2019-2020 school year. By the 2021-2022 academic year, the number had fallen to 39. Among the schools that closed during this period were Aspire ERES, a K-8 school in Fruitvale that shut down in 2021 after the OUSD board, which has the authority to approve or deny charter petitions, rejected Aspire’s request for an expansion, and Roses in Concrete, which merged with Howard Elementary School in 2020 to become Oakland Academy of Knowledge in OUSD. 

One of the schools that’s seen its enrollment decline is East Bay Innovation Academy. The charter has two campuses, one serving middle schoolers on Malcolm Avenue near the Oakland Zoo, and a high school campus on Mountain Boulevard near Holy Names University. It opened in 2014 with a sixth and seventh grade, and has added a grade each year. The school, which places an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) learning, graduated its first senior class in spring 2020, during some of the greatest upheaval caused by the pandemic. 

Bonita Herrera, the school’s senior director of operations, said the timing made it difficult for the high school to attract more families the following year, since parents of prospective high schoolers are often evaluating schools based on graduation rates, college-going rates, and other outcomes that were adversely impacted by the pandemic. 

“A lot of our students were taking a gap year because they wanted to experience college in person and not necessarily through video,” Herrera said.

East Bay Innovation Academy currently has 530 students enrolled, down from 630 students during the 2020-2021 school year. While enrollment in the high school has remained relatively flat since expanding to 12th grade, the middle school numbers have fallen in the past two years, Herrera said. There were 361 middle school students two years ago. This year, there are 290.

As school leaders work to enroll more students, they’re also tasked with helping those who are there readjust to in-person learning after having their education disrupted for two years during the pandemic.

“We’re seeing mental health needs increase, we’re seeing academic needs increase because they’ve lost two years of in-person education,” said Herrera. “When we’re seeing those students come in in the sixth grade, the learning loss that they have experienced is definitely impacting them.”

The school recently hired a dean of students and behavioral specialists for each campus, and has put more of an emphasis on community building and bonding between students and staff to help with the transition back to in-person schooling. The school  also strengthened its social-emotional learning curriculum, which teaches students how to manage their emotions and foster positive relationships. 

Herrera said that when she talks to families of students who have left the school, the most common reason she hears is that the family is moving out of the Bay Area because the region has become too expensive. Some of those families were able to remain enrolled during distance learning, but once schooling resumed in-person, it became unfeasible to travel to the campus. 

With a longer open enrollment period than many other schools (from October to the end of February), and tours and information nights now happening both in-person and virtually, Herrera is hopeful that enrollment will rebound in the coming months, in turn leading to more resources for kids.

“Being fully enrolled means we’re able to be fully staffed and offer all the different programs,” like laptops for every student and after-school activities, Herrera said.

Lisa Gibes de Gac, the executive director of Oakland Enrolls, has reason to believe the recent charter trends are only temporary. The nonprofit, which manages applications for most Oakland charters, has seen a 13% increase in unique applicants this year compared to last year, she said. 

“While this doesn’t always necessarily translate to increased enrollment, we are seeing more families applying now than during the height of the pandemic,” she added. “With the re-emergence of in-person activities in the community and at schools, Oakland Enrolls has been better able to meet families where they are and support them with enrollment in-person.”

Some charters have seen rising enrollment despite the pandemic. One of them is Lighthouse Community Charter Schools, which operates three schools—one K-8, one K-11 (that will expand to a K-12 next year), and a high school—all in deep East Oakland. While enrollment is trending upwards, said Lighthouse CEO Rich Harrison, the demographics of the student body are also shifting. 

Middle school students at Lighthouse K-8 walk through the hallways in between classes. Credit: David Meza

While the combined enrollment at the three schools has risen from 1,404 students in 2019 to 1,563 this year, the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, one measure of poverty, has also risen from about 81% to 93% over the same time period. 

The number of unhoused students attending the schools also increased, from 18 in 2020 to 42 in 2022, after Lighthouse changed its enrollment process to prioritize those students. 

Even with an overall increase in the number of students, Harrison said he’s also heard from many families who are moving out of Oakland and the Bay Area to regions with cheaper housing and living costs.

“I do see a lot of our families moving to Sacramento, to Vacaville, Modesto, Stockton,” Harrison said. “That’s not specific to Lighthouse, I think that’s happening across all of Oakland.”

Oakland’s culture of school choice also encourages families to explore other options if their current school isn’t the right fit. Some families leave the Lighthouse network of schools in high school to attend larger schools with more extracurriculars or other programs, Harrison said. 

With smaller high schools of 200 to 300 students, Lighthouse isn’t able to offer as many sports or academic pathways as some of the larger comprehensive public high schools in Oakland. But their enrollment has remained stable mainly because of word of mouth in the East Oakland neighborhoods the schools largely draw from.

Harrison said maintaining competitive salaries is one of his top priorities as a school leader and that last year, Lighthouse was able to raise its teacher salaries by 12%. That was possible because of stable enrollment, which leads to stable funding, Harrison added. Lighthouse also benefits from having a network of schools, unlike East Bay Innovation Academy. 

Smaller, independent charters like East Bay Innovation Academy don’t have as many resources as a large school district like Oakland Unified. In OUSD, if a particular school campus doesn’t bring in enough funds to support itself, the district can transfer money from its general fund to cover those costs (but that practice can lead to structural deficits, which OUSD has struggled with for years). 

“We’re a standalone charter school. It’s not like we have a district behind us. We’re our own district,” Herrera said. “That can be a challenge. If we’re in financial trouble, it’s just us.”

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.