Mountain View schools are facing a strange predicament. The local economy is humming along, people are moving into the city and dozens of new housing developments are either approved or in the works. All the ingredients are there for enrollment growth for the Mountain View Whisman School District.
But when demographers crunched the numbers late last year, they found district-wide enrollment is expected to stay flat and even decline in the coming years. The information stifled recent efforts by the district's Boundary Advisory Task Force to find ways to open a new school campus, and left many wondering why enrollment is stalling.
The increasing level of affluence in Mountain View, along with perceptions of how public schools perform, may be the primary culprits.
Mountain View's population has been on the upswing in recent years and is expected to continue, bringing a projected 10 percent increase in the elementary and middle-school aged kids in the city by 2019, according to the district's demographic study. But the school district's elementary school enrollment isn't projected to increase at all during that time.
The 10 percent increase will add to the roughly 7,101 children ages 5 to 13 who live within the school district boundaries, although only about 5,000 children attended public schools this year, according to the study. That leaves about 2,100 "missing" students who are presumed to be either attending a private or charter school, or are being home-schooled, according to the study.
While the Boundary Advisory Task Force was charged with balancing enrollment at Mountain View Whisman campuses, some members wondered if the real problem isn't that nearly a quarter of students in the city don't go to public schools in the first place.
"(The issue) is not housing, it's those 2,000 students who are choosing not to go to our schools. That's an issue that we're not discussing," said task force member Thida Cornes at a recent meeting.
Exploring what lures families away from public schools goes well beyond the scope of the task force, but the growing level of affluence in Mountain View may be playing a role. The demographic study noted a jump in median household income from $41,911 in 1990 to $91,302 in 2014, and it is expected to grow to $106,475 by 2019.
"Further analysis of households by income demonstrates that the Mountain View Whisman School District community is becoming increasing affluent," the study states.
Concurrent with the trend is a steady increase in private school enrollment dating back to 2006, with private school enrollment among Mountain View students topping out at more than 800 in 2013. And private school administrations have noticed it, too. Jennifer Chapa, head of admissions at the Yew Chung International School of Silicon Valley, said they've seen more interest in the school this year, and had to stretch the school's limited space to accommodate new students. Even then, she said, the school continues to have a wait lists through third grade.
Interim Superintendent Kevin Skelly said the 2,100 student figure may seem high, but in a community with a high number of "robust" private schools, it's to be expected. A similar count was never done in Palo Alto, he said, but he guessed the numbers of students opting for private schools was likely similar or even greater considering the sheer number of schools in the area. Skelly noted that about 40 percent of the kids enrolled at the nearby German International School of Silicon Valley reside in Mountain View.
Beyond private schools, Skelly suggested that the enrollment woes of the district may have to do with the number of families unable to live in the area anymore.
"Another factor might be the cost of housing," Skelly said. "Some people are moving out."
Although data on how many people are being priced out of Mountain View is not included in the demographic study, recent enrollment data from the school district strongly indicates that many students from lower-income families are no longer attending Mountain View schools.
The percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch in the district, a key indicator of household income, dropped this year from 42 percent to 37 percent. In order to qualify, the annual household income of a family of four would have to be less than $44,123.
Learning to embrace neighborhood schools
While nearly a quarter of Mountain View families are opting out of sending children to their public neighborhood school in favor of private schools and home schooling, many of the families within the district are fighting to transfer out of their own neighborhood schools, flocking to either the district's parent-participation program or the schools with the highest test scores.
This year, there were 149 parents who requested kindergarten placement into the Stevenson PACT program in the district, according to a weekly memo from Interim Superintendent Kevin Skelly. Of those students, 77 had their request denied because the school was at capacity. In a distant second place was Bubb Elementary, with 16 requests denied, followed by Huff at 14.
Kindergarten requests showed that over the last two years, only 32 percent of parents from the Theuerkauf attendance area requested their own neighborhood school for kindergarten enrollment, followed by Castro's traditional program at 33 percent (excluding its Dual Immersion choice program), and Monta Loma and Landels at 35 percent, according to the memo. By contrast, 86 percent of parents in the Huff attendance area requested their neighborhood school.
Parental preference may be partly responsible for why the demographics of the Theuerkauf neighborhood are such a mismatch compared to actual student enrollment at the school. The number of socio-economically disadvantaged students in the Theuerkauf area is pinned at 45 percent, but that number jumps to 70 percent of students at the school.
Tonya Brilon, the PTA president at Monta Loma, told the board earlier this month that about 50 percent of the people on her street send their kids to Castro's Dual Immersion, the PACT program or private school. The rest of the neighborhood, she said, is likely very similar.
"If you were to poll a subset of the students from the Monta Loma neighborhood, I think you would find upwards of 40 percent (of families) send their kids to choice programs," Brilon said.
The disinterest by neighborhood residents in having their children attend Monta Loma may be entirely superficial, as Brilon explained that there's a perception among families that Monta Loma is not a great school because of its diverse population.
Brilon's comments were in the context of potentially opening up a new school in the Whisman neighborhood area, which threatened to bring Monta Loma Elementary enrollment down to fewer than 350 students and raise the percentage of socio-economically disadvantaged and English-language learners at the school.
She said the move would hamper recent, concerted efforts to get people to see Monta Loma as a quality school. The school has made great progress and was recently recognized by State Sen. Jerry Hill as a distinguished school, Brilon said.
"I think it's getting better. I think we have been pulling more people from the neighborhood," Brilon said.
Peter Darrah, a member of the Boundary Advisory Task Force, said parents tend to love their neighborhood school once they give it a chance, but still initially try to get out of it by requesting a spot in PACT or Huff. He said it creates tension between neighborhood schools and choice programs, particularly among the northern four schools in the district that only have one-third of parents requesting their own neighborhood school.
The problem is not insurmountable, Darrah said, emphasizing that it's time to start working on improving the academic programs at the schools as well as the public's perception of schools traditionally seen as low-performing.
"I'd like to see us work on the image schools have to draw families back into public schools," Darrah said.