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LAUSD enrollment decline continues during online learning, with unexpected drop of 6,000 kindergarteners

Gardner Elementary coordinator Lali Oustinovskaya, seated, talks with parent Byata Dikker.
Gardner Elementary coordinator Lali Oustinovskaya, seated, talks with parent Byata Dikker at a technology and supply pickup event before the start of the school year at the Hollywood campus. Enrollment at the school is down, according to a parent leader.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)

Enrollment at the Los Angeles Unified School District has continued its downward trend for the 2020-21 academic year, with the decline in kindergarten enrollment — especially in the school system’s lowest-income neighborhoods — about three times as large as in recent years.

“Overall enrollment is down at about the same level as prior years,” L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner said in remarks broadcast Monday morning. “The main drivers of this are the lack of affordable housing in the communities served by our schools and the continued decline in birth rate.”

But the district’s youngest students are absent in the greatest numbers, a possible reflection of the hardships many families are grappling with during the COVID-19 pandemic and their inability to guide young children through the rigors of distance learning.

“The most significant change in enrollment is at the kindergarten level,” Beutner said. “The biggest drops in kindergarten enrollment are generally in neighborhoods with the lowest household incomes. We suspect some of this is because families may lack the ability to provide full-time support at home for online learning, which is necessary for very young learners.”

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Enrollment in kindergarten so far this year is 36,914, according to figures released Monday by L.A. Unified — down about 6,000 students or 14% from last year. The two prior years, kindergarten enrollment had dropped about 2,000 students each year.

The Times requested the enrollment numbers last week when it reported growing concerns from some teachers and principals about the district’s attendance counting policy.

In addition to a drop in kindergarten enrollment, some principals also are reporting that attendance in live online transitional kindergarten through first-grade classes is particularly low.

“The average class size is approximately 12 to 15 students per grade level,” said Juan Flecha, president of the union that represents principals, who said the low class tallies come from his members rather than L.A. Unified. “I think parents are finding it extraordinarily difficult to manage their personal and professional lives while somehow keeping the tykes engaged on a device.”

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Flecha’s anecdotal numbers suggest that, in many cases, only 50% to 75% of kindergartners and first-graders are making it to live online sessions.

Under state law, parents do not have to enroll their children in kindergarten. Starting in first grade, however, schooling is mandatory, although parents are allowed to homeschool their children.

It’s difficult to gauge the meaningfulness or length of student engagement based on the district’s official attendance rates because the district’s liberal attendance policy allows a student to be counted as present by simple actions, including emailing or being in brief contact with their teacher before midnight each day. Attending online classes is not mandatory for attendance purposes, but some form of daily online contact is required. The district policy is not at odds with state rules put in place during the pandemic, officials from other state agencies have said.

The district on Monday released an average daily attendance rate of 88.4%, which compares to last year’s rate of 91.8%, when different in-person attendance rules applied.

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The district lists its overall K-12 enrollment at 461,105, compared with 472,336 for last year. As Beutner indicated, the enrollment decline based on that count is similar to that of previous recent years.


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