Los Altos School District's enrollment has declined for the fifth year in a row, driving down the district's total enrollment to the lowest it's been since 2005, according to data released last month.
The decline is more pronounced than public school enrollment trends across Santa Clara County -- which has sagged in recent years -- likely due to a significant increase in charter school enrollment. As the district's student count dropped this year, Bullis Charter School enrolled more than 100 additional students.
The head count collected on Oct. 2 shows that enrollment in the district decreased from 4,243 students last year to 3,996 this year, the largest single-year loss of students going back to at least the 1990s. Enrollment shrank the most at Blach Intermediate School, followed by Loyola and Almond elementary schools.
Superintendent Jeff Baier said the enrollment decline is not necessarily a cause for concern, and that the district has long viewed enrollment as cyclical. Enrollment in schools expands and contracts over the long term, and right now it appears students are "aging" out of the district. The district also has to contend with countywide trends showing a decrease in birth rates, and the possibility that families may be moving out of the area or moving into the district at lower rates.
"That's what we've been kind of curious about and trying to dig into," Baier said. "In looking at information about departures at the end of the year, there certainly seems to be a number of families who are moving out of the area."
Although some schools are getting pretty lean -- Garder Bullis Elementary is now at 289 students, and Loyola contracted from 573 students to just 362 over the last six years -- Baier said the schools are not at risk of closure or collapse. The school board's longstanding approach is that schools would vary in size over time with either two, three or four classrooms per grade level, and that neighborhood schools serving nearby families should be the prevailing model regardless of enrollment.
"The board has made clear we are committed to neighborhood schools," Baier said. "We think it's a critical element of high quality education in our district and it's what our community is clear about wanting."
The big factor that could be influencing the district's enrollment is Bullis Charter School. As of June last year, Bullis is no longer constrained by an agreement that kept its enrollment around 900 students. Now subject to an 1,111-student cap, Bullis reportedly grew this fall to 1,039 students, Baier said.
In past years, charter school leaders have said they frequently receive close to 1,000 requests for kindergarten enrollment, and hold an enrollment lottery to determine the 10% of the prospective families that can be admitted in a given year.
As part of an interim two-year agreement, the school district will provide enough classroom space on the Egan Junior High and Blach campuses to house the charter school students. A more permanent solution to house the charter school remains uncertain, as Los Altos School District's board of trustees continues to solicit feedback on where to put Bullis.
Despite the decline in students, the Los Altos school district is still moving forward with plans to construct a 10th school site. Earlier this year, the district announced plans to buy land for $155 million in the San Antonio neighborhood of Mountain View -- which is within the Los Altos School District's boundaries -- in order to build a school roughly located at the corner San Antonio shopping center at California Street and Showers Drive.
Baier said the worry is that major residential development in the area is going to inundate the nearby schools in the coming years, which include Egan and Almond and Santa Rita elementaries. Two new complexes already under construction would add a combined 1,215 apartments, and plenty of new development is planned along the Los Altos side of El Camino Real. It's also unclear whether Federal Realty, which owns a large portion of the San Antonio shopping center including the Walmart, might build in the area.
"We've got time to plan for the thousands of units coming online, and even if we don't see it at our doorstep right now, we know it's coming," Baier said.