Schools compete for Ventura County's shrinking pool of students
Ventura County's public schools are having to sell themselves to attract and retain students in the face of a stark reality:
Enrollment is free-falling with no end in sight. The downward trajectory is driven by an aging and shrinking population and more families choosing alternatives to traditional brick-and-mortar education.
With no way to stop families from leaving the county or make them have more children, local school districts have turned toward marketing their programs much as private and charter schools do.
They are adding popular electives, crafting glitzy extracurricular programs, expanding independent study opportunities and, on occasion, even taking students from neighboring districts.
“We are having to compete in a marketplace,” said Sabrena Rodriguez, Ventura's school board president and a regional director with the California School Board Association. “I personally think it’s making us better.”
Somis School, for example, recently launched a computer-coding program for all its students, kindergarten through eighth grade.
Jesus Vaca, the school’s president and superintendent, said public schools don’t have the public's implicit trust of years past.
"You have to market yourself," Vaca said following a robotics presentation for parents last month. "It's not convenience anymore. It's return. 'What am I going to get for my child?'"
Oak Park saw the writing on the wall back in 2004 and moved to become a "district of choice," meaning it doesn't need permission from other districts to take their students.
Oak Park has worked hard to brand itself as the premier district in the county, trumpeting its accolades, test scores and rankings on its website's homepage.
It's effective. This year, transfers comprised about 50% of the district's enrollment, including nearly 1,000 students from Moorpark, Simi Valley, Conejo Valley and Las Virgenes, state and district documents show.
The competition over students is about state funding. For public and charter schools, each enrolled student is worth as much as $10,000 a year in state support, depending on grade level and attendance. If a student opts for private or home school, that money disappears.
With 12,000 fewer students than in 2015, Ventura County education funding has been millions of dollars lighter each year.
During the pandemic, the state has given schools with declining enrollment a break by continuing to use the higher 2018-2019 student numbers to calculate funding. But the future looks bleak.
State finance department forecasts based on fertility and migration trends indicate Ventura County will lose another 25,000 students by 2031. The 19.5% decline would be the second-largest enrollment drop in California behind Los Angeles County.
Demographic changes account for most of the county's enrollment decline. For more than a decade, the county's population has been getting older while the percentage of children has dropped.
From 2010 through 2020, the proportion of children fell from 26% to 23%, even as the county gained 5% more people over 60.
That's partly because people are having fewer babies. Between 1995 and 2017, the countywide fertility rate dropped from 76 to 57 children per 1,000 women and girls aged 15 to 44, according to the non-profit Populations Reference Bureau.
That has led to fewer young children every year, with the number of those under age 5 dropping by more than 6,000 between 2010 and 2020.
The trend is not unique to Ventura County. Jamshid Damooei, a demographer at California Lutheran University, called it a "global phenomenon" among developed nations.
Ventura County is also losing families to other states. The most recent census data show a net emigration of 7,000 residents between 2015 and 2019, with the largest losses to Texas, Arizona and Nevada.
The changes are reflected in the pool of available students. Between 2017 and 2020, the number of children in the county dropped by nearly 5,000.
But the census data do not account for the entire enrollment decline of 7,000 students.
No one is sure where the other student went, said Matt Phillips, a financial and management consultant for educational agencies in California. “That is the million-dollar question,” he said.
The Ventura Unified School District has closely examined its enrollment decline. It lost nearly 1,800 students, or 10% of its enrollment, over the last seven years and expects to lose another 500 over the next two years.
In the past school year alone, 354 students moved to other public schools in California, 151 moved out of state and 180 made the jump to private schools, according to the district's student exit data.
Private and charter schools and homeschooling grew especially popular during the pandemic when the county's public schools went online and required masks upon students' return to campus.
Danielle Cortes, superintendent of the Pleasant Valley School District, said the pandemic gave some families a first taste of alternatives to education “between four walls, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” and several decided not to return.
Countywide, private school enrollment rose by more than 2,000 in the last two years, state data show, though much of that growth came from two locally-based online schools that count students from outside Ventura County.
Census estimates show the number of homeschooling households in California increased by just 0.1% from April to October 2020. But Lance Izumi, an education researcher with the Pacific Research Institute, a conservative think tank, said the survey did not capture the full breadth of homeschooling in the state. Many of those students are technically enrolled in charter schools but the parents are in charge of their education.
Charter school enrollment has stayed relatively flat, according to state data, though The Star found at least one such school – Opportunities for Learning in Simi Valley – not included in the count.
District-based independent study programs could be one way to arrest the enrollment decline.
"One-size-fits-all no longer applies," Cortes said. "A neighborhood school is amazing, but that doesn’t work for every family."
Like other districts, Pleasant Valley is testing several countermeasures. Cortes is strengthening the curriculum at the district's four magnet schools and exploring an elementary dual language immersion program.
Like Oak Park, Pleasant Valley uses its web page as an advertising space. A photo of smiling children is one of the first images to load, along with a slogan: "You'll love it here."
Damooei, the Cal Lutheran demographer, suggested that schools use the capacity opened by declining enrollment to launch early childhood education programs, a step several districts have already taken in line with Gov. Gavin Newsom's plan to enroll all of the state's 4 years olds in the next four years.
Vaca, the Somis School principal, said that whatever schools do, they need to find ways to communicate directly with parents.
"You have to dispel the myths," he said. "My parents fully trust in what the school is doing."
Phillips, the educational consultant, said schools can go a long way towards getting students back by better communicating to parents what they already have.
“They have to communicate that they have some of those same things that charter schools and private schools have,” he said. “It’s just never been communicated."
Isaiah Murtaugh covers education for the Ventura County Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.