In the past 10 years, enrollment in the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) has declined by more than 3,500 students, going from 18,500 to less than 15,000 children, despite well over 30,000 school-aged children living in the district’s attendance zone, according to a district staff report contained in Thursday’s school board agenda.
That means that more than half of the school-age children in Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre are not attending PUSD schools.
“It’s a product of many factors. There has always been a very large, in terms of national rankings, private school enrollment of families living in the PUSD area, on the order of 35 percent for many years since forced busing, and 10 to 20 percent before that historically due to the segregated history of the area,” said Board of Education President Scott Phelps. “So that’s the largest part of it.”
According to Phelps, there are students attending nearby public school districts on permits, but a roughly equal number of families who live in other districts have children who attend PUSD schools on permits.
“These are program-related, such as people coming to our schools for our Dual Language Immersion and STEM programs, our International Baccalaureate programs, sports, etc. So that’s not a factor,” Phelps said.
The declining enrollment is largely due to increasing housing costs.
“Especially in the last 20 years, as rents have increased many lower income families have moved away from PUSD to find more affordable housing in the Lancaster-Palmdale area, Fontana- Rialto, Riverside, and Moreno Valley areas. I personally know several families that have moved away for lower cost housing,” Phelps said.
“It’s a perfect storm kind of thing with PUSD not having the wealthiest students due to all the private school options in the area, and then losing enrollment of lower income families due to housing costs,” he said.
Since 2000, declining enrollment has led to 11 out of 34 schools being closed.
“It’s very tough for the morale of all of us, including staff, as funds are always tight, and equally disheartening is the tendency for those out to make political points and usually to also secure funding for their nonprofits to blame all of this on the PUSD staff, the quality of services, boards, etc,.” Phelps said. “It’s not an accurate criticism as those aren’t the driving factors for this.”
“This, of course, has led to unstable budgets and low employee morale as a result of lack of resources to adequately compensate them and support their work,” Phelps stated.
On Thursday, the district is expected to lay out a roadmap to “provide clear direction for the district and provide guidance to staff in alignment with the board’s previously approved vision and mission statements.”
According to the mission statement, “the district provides a caring, engaging, and challenging educational experience for every student, every day in partnership with our families and communities.”
The statement establishes the district as the first choice in education for families and students who value academic excellence, innovation, and diversity in programs and students. “We focus our resources, in partnership with our families, so that each child thrives,” according to the statement .
The statement echoes Phelps’ belief that declining enrollment is one of the district’s biggest problems.
“This impacts the ability of PUSD to provide adequate support to all students, creating a vicious cycle that threatens the long-term viability of the district as the bedrock of the community that public schools typically are,” the report states.
“In order to drive change in our district, we must embark on the arduous work of becoming a cohesive and unified team through a series of activities designed to help us first coalesce around a common vision and mission, the document states. “This common vision and mission will serve as the ‘North Star’ for the entire organization.”