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Education

Empty classrooms and quiet hallways: California’s rural far north grapples with declining enrollment

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Andrew Nixon
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CapRadio
Arianna Ashley's 5th grade class at Greer Elementary sees her students in cohorts, allowing for social distance and the option of full-time distance learning, Thursday, April 8, 2021.

Even as the overall population in California’s rural north has remained steady or even grown over the past two decades, the number of children enrolled in public schools such as those in Quincy has shrunk. From the Pacific Coast to the inland mountains and valleys, dozens of schools have seen steep drops in enrollment.

When Cheryl Kolb was growing up in Quincy, a picturesque Gold Rush town in the northern Sierra, kids would while away their days exploring the forests, swimming in the Feather River and getting milkshakes at the Polka Dot.

Now, those trails and swimming holes are a lot quieter. Quincy High School, the largest high school in Plumas County, only had 301 students last year in grades 7-12 – fewer than half its enrollment when Kolb was a student there in the 1980s.

“It’s been pretty hard to see all these families leave because I love it here,” said Kolb, who’s lived in Quincy most of her life and has raised her three children there. “I’d prefer to stay here forever, but I guess if there was another disaster, another big fire, I’d have to consider leaving, too.”

Even as the overall population in California’s rural north has remained steady or even grown over the past two decades, the number of children enrolled in public schools such as those in Quincy has shrunk. From the Pacific Coast to the inland mountains and valleys, dozens of schools have seen steep drops in enrollment.

Faced with voracious wildfires that strike almost annually, unsteady local economies and an ever-escalating cost of living, families are fleeing to other counties and other states.

Charter schools have siphoned away thousands of students, and as the pandemic wears on, more families are opting to homeschool their children rather than submit them to mask and vaccine mandates.

That’s left schools in towns like Quincy and Dunsmuir and Alturas with empty classrooms and difficult choices. Because school funding in California is based on attendance, rural schools receive less money every year that enrollment drops.

That forces them to lay off staff, a painful process in towns where jobs are scarce and everyone knows one another, or cut popular amenities like after-school programs and science labs. Closing schools is rarely an option because the district may only have one school serving a massive geographic area.

These factors all combine to strain rural districts even further, often resulting in cuts that make schools even less attractive to prospective families. But the situation is not new, said Tim Taylor, executive director of the Small School Districts’ Association.

“Declining enrollment has been a challenge in rural areas for decades. Now that L.A. Unified has declining enrollment, everyone is saying, wow, this is really a problem,” Taylor said. “What we know is that it’s a heavy load, and the pressure falls on the superintendent.”

Statewide, enrollment had held steady over the past decade, until it plummeted during the pandemic, triggering the state Wednesday to form a task force to study its origins. But in many parts of rural Northern California, enrollment has been inching downward for two decades or more. Since 1999-20, schools in the rural north state have lost 5.02% of their enrollment. Some have lost far more.

Some rural districts in the region have seen enrollment drop by more than 60% over the past 20 years. Although they’re all facing the same challenges, each school has its own story and unique reasons for declining enrollment. Golden Feather Elementary District in Butte County, where enrollment has dropped by 76% over the past 20 years, was ravaged by the Camp fire in 2018, only to be threatened again by the Dixie fire in 2021.

Orick, in the redwoods of northern Humboldt County, has seen its population plummet as its six sawmills closed, one by one, leaving the K-8 Orick School with only 21 students last year. In the early 1990s, Orick School had almost 80 students. Schools in some counties, such as Trinity, Humboldt and Mendocino, have seen their attendance fluctuate based on the vagaries of the cannabis industry, which currently is flagging.

Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, has not been decimated by wildfires or unemployment. But, situated amid bucolic apple orchards and vineyards in the North Bay, it has been subject to a soaring cost of living. The average home price last month was $1.3 million, according to Realtor.com, and rents jumped by more than 50% last year. It’s not unusual for families to pay more than $3,000 a month to rent a small house – a major hurdle in an area that’s primarily agricultural.

Sonoma County also has a plethora of charter and private schools, and families can easily send their children to schools in districts other than the one in which they reside. The result is that Sebastopol Union School District has to fight to attract and retain students, which is not always easy in an area that is rapidly changing. In 2000, the K-eight district had more than 1,200 students. Now it’s hovering at 400.

“It’s a depressing situation. The smaller you get, the fewer options you have, so it’s exponential,” said Superintendent Linda Irving. “I try to bring the board, unions and community together. That helps.”

In Sebastopol, shrinking enrollment means that Irving has to think of creative ways to attract new students. Using a small budget for marketing, she’s printed brochures for local real estate agents to give to new families, and upgraded the district website. She’s also used one-time money to fund ongoing services like science, technology, engineering and math programs — not an ideal choice but necessary to compete against better-funded schools.

Rio Dell Elementary, a TK-eight district in Humboldt County, has been hit hard by Covid – and Covid regulations, said Superintendent Angela Johnson. The area has the highest Covid rate in the county, according to the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, but school closures, mask mandates and vaccine requirements have also taken a toll, leading many frustrated families to pull their children from the local public school and homeschool them.

Often when the students return to school, they’re behind their classmates academically and need extra help catching up, placing a further burden on the 290-student, mostly low-income district, Johnson said. She dreads any further Covid requirements from Sacramento.

“We’re closely watching to see what the Legislature does with vaccine mandates. It’s going to be crucial in rural communities like ours,” she said.

Enrollment at Happy Valley Union Elementary, near Redding, hasn’t slipped nearly as much as other rural schools. The K-eight district in the upper Sacramento Valley only had 34% fewer students last year than it did 20 years ago, compared with the estimated 50% drop many districts have suffered. But attendance has been a challenge. Early in the school year, roughly 13% of students were absent daily, largely due to Covid restrictions that have led families to keep their children at home, said Superintendent Shelly Craig.

Still, Craig is grateful for the supportive community in Happy Valley, an unincorporated area in Shasta County surrounded by farms and ranches.

“Our schools are at the center of our close-knit community. Several students are second and third-generation students. Until last year, when several teachers and staff members retired, the majority of our teachers had served in the community for decades,” Craig said. “Our students and staff are part of a school family.”

That strong sense of community is one asset that small towns can offer prospective families and young people looking to settle down, said Ann Schulte, head of civic engagement at Chico State University and an education professor who works closely with rural districts.

But if those towns want families and young people to stay, they need to listen more closely to what young people want.

“Plenty of people who grew up in small towns want to move back and settle there and raise kids,” she said. “But there has to be more there than just their grandparents. There has to be ‘a good cup of coffee and a place to hear music.’ There has to be some culture and economic opportunity.”

In response to declining enrollment and other issues facing rural youth, school leaders in Shasta, Tehama, Siskiyou, Modoc and Trinity counties, with help from the McConnell Foundation, launched an organization called North State Together, which brings together schools, local businesses, families, tribal groups and others to strengthen local schools and improve outcomes for students.

Schulte is optimistic that these towns will revitalize, and more families will decide to stay and raise their children there.

“People are suddenly paying attention to what’s happening in rural areas, and they’re realizing these are beautiful, undervalued places that have a lot to offer,” she said.

In Plumas County, longtime Quincy resident Kolb is hopeful that her community will be spared another disaster like the Dixie fire, which roared perilously close to Quincy last summer, and life will return to normal post-pandemic. Ultimately, she said, Quincy and towns like it are wonderful places to grow up, settle down and raise kids.

“I loved growing up here. It was safe, it was fun. Our parents never knew where we were, and that was OK,” said Kolb, who works at the Quincy Chamber of Commerce. “It was an awesome place to be. It still is.”

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