Acalanes high school district faces declining enrollment


Nastia Grits, Acalanes High School

Acalanes High School faces declining enrollment, leading to significant impact on classes, staff, and students.

Melina Nath, Acalanes High School

The Acalanes Union High School District administration has begun to examine the effects of the current decline in enrollment for future school years, resulting in possible staffing shifts. 

The district Governing Board presented current enrollment numbers and projections for the next five years during the District Governing Board meeting on Nov. 17, 2021. The Board examined enrollment trends in both the K-8 Lafayette School District and the Acalanes high school district . 

According to the Board’s data, enrollment at Acalanes High School peaked in the 2015-2016 school year with 1,462 attending students. As of the 2021-2022 school year, 1,233 students attend Acalanes. The district predicts enrollment to drop to 1,034 students by 2026. 

Both districts anticipated the decline years in advance. According to the Acalanes district, one possible factor of declining enrollment is fewer younger families currently living in the Lafayette community. 

“Very often, families will move in for about 30 years with small kids and raise their kids. At a certain point, they move out and then a new family comes in with small kids … That is part of the cycle of neighborhood turnover, which means people are moving out and new people move in. A lot of that happens on cycles based on when the community was built,” Acalanes  Superintendent Dr. John Nickerson said.

To examine this process, according to Lafayette school Superintendent Richard Whitmore, the LAFSD hired Davis Demographics to conduct an ongoing community demographics study. 

“A demographic study is a study of the student population of a school district and how it is changing over time … [Demographic] studies also include information about the district’s enrollment patterns, birth trends in the area, housing developments, and spatial cohort patterns, [or] how many students live in each neighborhood each year,” Davis Demographics Technical Marketing Manager Jared Nelson said. 

According to the California Association of Realtors, the median sale price for a single-family home in Contra Costa County increased from $500,000 in January 2016 to $830,000 in December 2021.

The continuing  rise in Lamorinda housing prices may also contribute to the changing demographics of the Lafayette population. This uptick in prices pushed former residents out of the Acalanes district boundaries despite increasing efforts to build affordable, multi-family housing in the area. 

“[The cities of Lafayette, Walnut Creek, and Orinda] built high-density housing, but what they are finding is families really are not living in it. It is more young professionals that are taking that on pre-children … As California gets more expensive for families, younger families [and] working families often have to leave the state or leave the big areas like [the Bay Area] to go out to the Central Valley or cheaper areas, where schools are growing in enrollment,” Acalanes district  Associate Superintendent Amy McNamara said.

Although a fluctuating enrollment pattern is common for schools, the District recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic is a significant cause of the declining enrollment.

“[We] have economic displacement happening to a lot of working families and those would tend to be the ones with children … I think COVID-19 has exacerbated the already existing problem of declining enrollment that so many districts in the Bay Area were experiencing,” McNamara said.

In anticipation of ongoing social-distancing requirements due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district chose to maintain smaller class sizes into the 2021-2022 school year, increasing the number of classes and educators. However, the district will not move forward with the current model as it is not sustainable for the school budget.

“It costs more to [run] smaller classes and we have maintained it throughout the pandemic,” Acalanes Registrar Emily Finn said.

Declining enrollment also affects the elective programs run at each school, as a decrease in enrollment also indicates a decrease in elective sign-ups for specific classes.

“[Acalanes should have] about 1,300 students. We are closer to 1,200 right now and next year we will get even closer to 1,200 and maybe even drop below 1,200. In terms of having the critical mass to run a robust elective program, when a school gets too small, it becomes hard to run certain electives,” Nickerson said.  

Despite the adjustments to schedules and staffing in the coming school year, district leadership emphasizes that enrollment likely will follow previous cyclical patterns.   

“We have been projecting [declining enrollment] for years, just based on the demographics … What we have seen historically is [enrollment goes] through cycles. We are projected to drop [in enrollment] for another five years, [but] if the past is an indicator, [enrollment] will go back up,” Nickerson said.