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Let’s Stabilize Enrollment But Also Make Informed Decisions

Enrollment data (the number of students attending schools) stirs much debate in OUSD board meetings and throughout Oakland education circles. I, for one, have repeatedly questioned my own understanding of enrollment trends after listening to discussions on topics ranging from how many eligible students are in district-run schools to the enrollment drop-off in certain grades, both of which are discussed below.

Considering the financial impact of attendance on schools and the district, the public deserves easily accessible answers to these types of questions, especially since the cleanest data rarely leads to causal relationships that inform corrective policies.

The most recent debate is around the Enrollment Stabilization policy. The proposal aims to reverse declining enrollment in district-run schools and allocate funds to help promote those schools, not charters. Based on my own previous research, I attribute a large share of enrollment loss in certain schools and communities to the harmful impact of OUSD’s open enrollment policy. Oakland’s district-wide enrollment policy exacerbates racial and socioeconomic segregation in schools and leads to some neighborhoods without more than 70% of their eligible students.

Upon reading the policy, however, I did not find any mention of open enrollment or even the fact that the Enrollment Working Group is looking deeply at enrollment reform and should soon be, in the resolution’s words, presenting “a comprehensive approach to reversing the decline in enrollment.”

With renewed confusion, I have returned to the data to try to understand this proposed policy and determine whether the suggested solution and funding are the best corrective measures.

Clearly Defining Enrollment Trends

The 2020 Facilities Master Plan offers a compelling snapshot of the problem district-run schools face in terms of enrollment. In the past 10 years, the number of public school students has risen by about 10% and represents a larger share (91% compared to 84%) of all school-age students in Oakland.

However, 32% of public school students were in charters in 2019-2020 compared to only 21% in 2009-2010. We know, therefore, that the district is losing potential revenue to charter schools which, as Director Gonzalez stated in a previous board meeting, threatens vital resources for district-run schools.

What’s less clear is the precise enrollment gaps we should focus on closing. The district-run school enrollment is about 6% less than 10 years ago, representing a drop of about 2,200 students. In that time, Oakland has seen a net closure of about 17 district-run schools which represents a loss of about the same number (2,400) of students (this is a rough estimate based on the enrollment of schools before closure and not accounting for re-enrollment).

Given the decline in facilities, we shouldn’t necessarily be using 2000 or even 2010 levels as our benchmark. Yet, what our enrollment goal should be is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. If we consider the maximum enrollment at active district-run schools within the past 10 years, a potential goal could be set at around 41,000 students, about 11% higher than our current totals.

So Where Are We Headed?

While we have a ways to go, positive trends are visible. As we see above, the enrollment of district-run 6th and 9th graders as a share of overall public school students increased in 2019-2020. Furthermore, all but two middle schools increased their overall enrollment from 2018-2019.

From what I can tell, the Enrollment Stabilization policy attributes a lot of these gains to the Oakland in the Middle Campaign. The campaign, started in 2019, promotes district-run middle schools only. As a former middle school teacher myself, I see many benefits and positive energy associated with this campaign. The causal relationship, however, with the enrollment increase is difficult to pinpoint.

For example, in addition to 6th graders, we saw a similar jump in enrollment for 9th graders as a share of public school students in 2019-2020. We also saw jumps in 2017-2018, before the campaign began, for Kindergarteners and 6th graders. Furthermore, the percentage of returning 5th graders in district-run middle schools still dropped going into 2019, while not nearly as starkly as the year prior.

Source: data requested directly from OUSD

Oakland in the Middle has simply not been in effect long enough to ascertain its impact and, considering the unknown effects of remote learning, relies on only one year of good data. The Stabilization policy cites Oakland In the Middle’s numbers to predict a complete recovery of the policy’s costs which, frankly, seems imprudent.

The Unknown Data Behind Separate Marketing Materials

The other portion of the policy that warrants pause is the divorce of all district-run school promotion from that of charter schools.

The policy argues that district resources should not go toward any tools that also promote charters since the district gets little return on investment if students use those tools to attend charters. The problem I see, once again, is a lack of evidence to show that students are using those tools to attend charter schools at disproportionate rates.

In addition to an array of marketing materials and school maps, Oakland’s School Finder will be revamped. Interestingly, the year the tool was implemented, 2017-2018, witnessed bumps in enrollment in Kindergarten and 6th grade. Moreover, this was the only year in the past five where the district retained more 5th graders year-over-year. Was the School Finder responsible for the bump? It is unclear. However, we should be looking at any analytics from the website to determine its impact before deciding to scrap it.

Placing the Burden on Families

Lastly, I believe the types of system changes outlined in the policy will place more burdens on families, with potentially little change in outcomes. Families will have to navigate multiple systems, complicating how they find information. This will perhaps even increase the likelihood they enroll in charters if district marketing does not win out; the district may come to regret losing some control.

I believe gains in enrollment will only come when we have a thorough understanding of students’ choices, specifically application and enrollment decisions. The more we create division between district-run systems and charter systems, the less insight we will have into issues such as why students may be opting out of district-run schools or where students are holding seats across multiple sites. The type of valuable analytics we could get from the School Finder to benefit district-run schools will become largely unavailable.

The Enrollment Stabilization policy has many positive aspects, but I struggle with the conclusions it draws. Enrollment decline, in my view, can be reversed by integrating students by race and class and reforming OUSD's market-based open enrollment policy. I am not convinced that doubling down on marketing resources, even if they ignore charter schools, will overcome these critical flaws in the enrollment system. At the very least, we need better data to assess the impact of programs and existing tools before we invest in (or divest from) them completely.

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