Decade closes with school district enrollment at a 15-year low
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Student enrollment for the Lake Tahoe Unified School District is at a 15-year-low, but school officials say the numbers are beginning to stabilize.
Head count is down by more than 2,000 students from a high of 5,978 for the 1996-97 school year. As the decade closes, there are 3,916 students enrolled in the district’s eight schools.
“This is just California period,” said Superintendent Jim Tarwater. “People have escaped. Those who are there are hanging in as best they can.”
The decade opened with nine schools within Lake Tahoe Unified, including the Transitional Learning Center. As the decade closed, there were two less elementary schools – Meyers Elementary and Al Tahoe Elementary – and the addition of the Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School.
Enrollment is also down at Douglas County schools at Lake Tahoe, but the figures are less
dramatic. From its peak in 2004-05 with 7,210 students, the district lost 751 students. The Douglas County School District closed Kingsbury Middle School in Zephyr Cove before the 2008-09 school year, and those students were absorbed by Zephyr Cove Elementary School and Whittell High School.
In addition to a shaky economy, enrollment has been affected by the seasonal nature of jobs in region. The school year opens with more students, who later move away with their families as resorts close for the season, Tarwater said.
“When October starts to hit, we start losing some of them,” he said. “If it’s a real cold one, it tends to go faster. It’s settled down by December.”
Families also exited the district after the state stopped its class size reduction efforts during the 2004-05 school year.
“We lost 300 kids that summer,” Tarwater said. “Parents nowadays know how critical it is getting that instruction at an early age. That’s how they respond – they will pack up a family and leave an area.”
For the families that remain, and in an effort attract new ones, Tarwater said district is providing programs like the dual immersion language program at Bijou Community School, the magnet school, an elementary school music program and vocational studies at South Tahoe High School.
“I’m really proud of everybody that we can get through this together,” Tarwater said. “The parents know they have less but they’re still supporting kids in schools.
“As long as you have that community support, you can make it,” he added.
Although the state reduced the district’s funding by $252 per pupil – a loss of about $1 million – the shortfall will be offset by federal stimulus funding and district reserves. Total revenues are projected to total $31.9 million for the current fiscal year, while expenditures are projected to total $35.1 million.
“I think we’ll go another year of keeping our fingers crossed just because of the economic crisis we’re in,” Tarwater said. “When the state can’t even maintain textbooks for kids, it will affect our enrollment.”
A promising indicator for enrollment levels is the surge in new kindergartners entering the district, Tarwater said.
“We’re seeing a surge at the kindergarten level, which is positive sign,” Tarwater said. “You’ve got younger families in here.”