Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
For Anne Darnton, principal of El Dorado Community School, the numbers were a bit of a surprise.
She, like many other administrators at Santa Fe Public Schools, knew there were fewer students than the prior year, with the COVID-19 pandemic being a prime reason. But the final amount – 84 fewer students comprising a 16% enrollment decline at the school – was not expected.
“This has been an unusual year for everybody,” Darnton said.
No school in the district lost more total students or at such a high percentage than El Dorado, according to district data.
While enrollment has been declining at SFPS and across New Mexico for years, the 2020-21 school year saw an even larger decrease. The district’s 120th day enrollment in 2021 totaled 11,586, down more than 650 students from the previous school year, a 5% drop.
Many schools – particularly those at the lower grade levels – saw large percentage decreases in enrollment, with eight seeing declines of more than 10% in one year. That includes Aspen and Amy Biehl community schools, and Chaparral, Nava, E.J. Martinez, Piñon and Kearny elementary schools.
A few schools did see enrollment increases.
Tesuque Elementary, Santa Fe High, Capital High and Mandela International Magnet School enrolled more students than the previous year, with Mandela – which offers an International Baccalaureate program and enrolls students through a lottery – increasing by more than 10%.
Districts officials believe there are many reasons why students left, but all stem from the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced students in the district to learn virtually for several months.
Superintendent Veronica García told the Journal many families elected to transfer students to more open private schools or decided to home school their children during the pandemic.
“We honor families that have made a choice to stay home,” Garcia said. “We don’t want them to feel like they’re second-class citizens.”
Officials also say many families have left Santa Fe or New Mexico altogether. García said this may be due to other states allowing high school sports when New Mexico did not.
One area that has seen steep declines is the number of kindergartners entering the district this year.
Chaparral Principal Erica Martinez-Maestas said the decrease at her school was so pronounced that it went from having two kindergarten classes to just one. She estimated that out of the 38 fewer students in her school, 20 were at the kindergarten level.
“I know multiple families have made the choice to home school their kids for kindergarten rather than having them enroll in public school,” Martinez-Maestas said.
It’s a problem the district has had to deal with consistently over the past few years. Prior to the pandemic, enrollment had dropped by 10% over four years. The number of students had closed to 15,000 in 2014, but has slid steadily since then, with little sign of stopping.
And it’s happening all across the state. The Legislative Finance Committee recently released a report that predicts New Mexico’s population of children will continue to decline over the next decade and suggested the state find news ways to educate a smaller number of kids.
However, district officials also say they’re starting to see more students return, especially since in-person classes resumed. García and principals said they’re expending a lot of effort to get back the students who left.
García said the district has sent out surveys, taken out radio advertisements and made various robocalls to remind families that in-person learning is an option.
It’s unclear how much those efforts have narrowed the gap in enrollment, but Martinez-Maestas said she believes the family atmosphere of Chaparral will bring students back.
“We have generations that have come to Chaparral,” she said. “I know the families that have switched to home school and it’s been a really hard decision for them because they love their teachers.”
But declines in enrollment at certain schools may also cause conversations centering around closing school sites to resurface.
In 2019, school board members considered potentially closing three sites – Nava, E.J. Martinez and Acequia Madre elementaries – due to shrinking enrollment and older facilities. Board members narrowly rejected the plan after fierce opposition from community members.
But similar plans haven’t necessarily been discounted, García said.
“That’s an annual conversation that we have regarding budget and low enrollment,” she said. “But I think that everything is very volatile right now and we don’t know what the shifts in population are going to be.”
Santa Fe’s real estate market is booming and García said time will tell if those moving in are families with children that may enter the school system.
If there’s anything certain, it’s that the state of enrollment will lead to budget cuts. García said the budget for next school year, which will be presented within the next week, will inevitably include some cuts, but it’s still unclear just how much.
The superintendent said a draft of the budget will presented during the school board’s Finance Study Session on Thursday.