Santa Fe Public Schools enrollment falls again

February 16, 2019

Declining enrollment has become a troubling trend at Santa Fe Public Schools, causing the district to lose millions of dollars in state funding from one year to the next.

Low birth rates limit the number of 5-year-olds entering kindergarten each August, while competition with charter and private schools also takes students away — particularly at the middle school level.

This school year, the district’s total enrollment is around 12,350 students, and officials estimate a decrease of 240 students from last year could lead to a loss of $2.5 million for the 2019-20 budget. Enrollment determines the amount of state funding the district receives, so losing students but not entire schools or classrooms spreads dollars thin.

“Kids are not leaving evenly in an entire class. They’re sprinkled throughout the district,” Superintendent Veronica García said. “So we can’t make a huge reduction in staff when we’re losing one or two kids here and there but not entire classrooms.”

In the four years since 2014-15, enrollment has declined by around 750 students. Currently, the district has 30 schools — or one for every 412 students. Tesuque Elementary School has just 100 students.

Those numbers are far below the national average.

According to Public School Review, a website that gathers data on U.S. schools, the average public school in the U.S. has 503 students. Albuquerque Public Schools has 143 schools for 84,000 students, or 587 students per school.

Even as enrollment steadily decreases and consolidating schools becomes an increasingly efficient option, closing a school has been politically difficult for Santa Fe school board members.

Despite aging facilities and shrinking student populations, García said, “ultimately, the board has to make those decisions based on what they believe their constituents want. Consistently, the public has come forward to say that they want to keep the small schools open.”

The New Mexico Public Education Department uses average attendance numbers on the 80th and 120th days of each school year to determine a district’s funding, based on a complicated formula that builds in extra dollars for special-education students, English-language learners, children with risk factors and other considerations.

Santa Fe Public Schools’ official numbers from the 120th day of this school year are not yet available.

Based on the 80th-day tallies, Milagro Middle School, scheduled to move to a new building in the fall, had the largest enrollment decrease, with 96 fewer students than last school year. Santa Fe High had the largest increase, with 88 more students.

This reflects a trend in which students leave Santa Fe Public Schools for middle school and then return to the district for high school. On the 80th day of school this year, Santa Fe Public Schools had 1,152 sixth-graders, 886 seventh-graders, 877 eighth-graders and 988 ninth-graders.

District officials hope the new building for Milagro as well as a new STEM curriculum — science, technology, engineering and math — at Milagro and Ortiz middle schools will entice more parents of seventh- and eighth-graders to keep their kids in public schools.

“Any perception that the drop in enrollment is due to a lack of confidence in Santa Fe Public Schools could not be further from the truth,” school board President Steven Carrillo said. “All you have to do is look at enrollment at Santa Fe High to show that people are choosing our high school.”

Santa Fe High’s enrollment has increased from 1,301 in 2016-17 to around 1,533 this school year. Compared to the district’s middle schools, Santa Fe High offers a much broader course list, including a wide range of Advanced Placement classes.

Additionally, Mandela International Magnet School and the Early College Opportunities high school — a dual-enrollment program with Santa Fe Community College in which students simultaneously earn a diploma and an associate degree or vocational certificate — allow the district to offer more options for high school students.

“I definitely think the increases in high school enrollment is because of our AP offerings and our wide variety of electives courses,” said Santa Fe High Principal Carl Marano.

“We have engineering, performing arts, culinary arts, computer science and really a lot of choices to offer,” he said. “Students return to us in high school because we have all these offerings and can put students on an accelerated path towards whatever academic or career paths they want to pursue.”