by David Michael Courtland

Enrollment in Ventura County schools has been falling steadily for several years, even as Oxnard school districts continue to build new schools.

Attendance figures taken by Ventura County schools at the beginning of each school year show a steady drop in total school enrollment each year from 2013-14 to 2017-18.

Ventura County’s overall total enrollment fell from 141,978 to 137,758 students during that period, just under 3 percent. The Ojai School District had the largest percentage drop, over 8 percent, from 2,751 in 2013-14 to 2,518 in 2017-18.

But Oxnard school districts continue planning new school construction. In November voters approved Measure A, $105 million of which will pay for a new high school to compensate for overcrowding at Oxnard and Pacifica high schools.

Also in November voters approved a $59 million bond measure Rio School District put on the ballot to fund completion of its new Rio Del Sol School in RiverPark and repair older schools.

Likewise, voters approved $90 million and $142.5 million bond measures in 2012 and 2016, respectively, for Oxnard School District to build two new schools as well as repair existing ones.

Rio School District was one of only two districts among 10 surveyed that gained students during the five years examined.

Rio’s enrollment rose from 4,809 in 2013-14 to 5,090 in 2017-18. In the small Somis School District, enrollment rose from 256 to 261 during that period.

Meanwhile Oxnard School District enrollment dropped to 16,599 in 2017-18 from 16,918 in 2015-16, after gaining slightly in the previous two years.

Oxnard School District Trustee Denis O’Leary

The decline made OSD Trustee Denis O’Leary wonder whether parents were enrolling their children in other schools with open enrollment — the policy of allowing parents to enroll their children in the school of their choice — or because of federal immigration policy. OSD’s students are mostly Latino, many of them from families that emigrated illegally.

“The other thing is that in California kindergarten is not required, you don’t have to register children for kindergarten,” O’Leary noted.

“We can see it’s families moving out of our district, the question is whether it has anything to do with immigration,” said O’Leary. “So are parents deciding to keep 5-year-olds at home instead of enrolling them, or are they moving to other places? We just don’t know.”

But O’Leary was confident that regardless of what caused the decline, the new schools would be needed to accommodate Oxnard’s growth.

“We do know that there are plans for new houses, houses that we all need to serve, we’re projecting out five or 10 years,” O’Leary said. “But I feel pretty confident that even with student population going down this year, we will need those schools.”

Oxnard School District Superintendent Cesar Morales

OSD’s Superintendent Cesar Morales said that there are several possible reasons for the decline in enrollment and acknowledged immigration policy is among them.

“There’s a lot of factors, some of it is lower birth rate, some of it is cost of living,” said Morales, who noted many of the school district’s parents were farmworkers. “There’s a possibility it is tougher immigration policy and anxiety about deportation.”

From 2008 to 2017 the number of annual deaths in Ventura County rose from 5,018 to 5,821 respectively, growing slightly each year. Meanwhile the annual number of births in the county dropped from 12,078 to 9,285 during the same period, declining slightly each year.

One factor Morales ruled out was the Thomas Fire in 2017, which he said affected OSD staff who lived in Ventura more than students’ families in Oxnard.

Morales said OSD would continue pursuing the master plan it approved in 2012, calling for two new schools, noting that many OSD students were still attending classes in portable structures and that a continued drop in enrollment would mean smaller class sizes.

“So declining enrollment hasn’t altered that plan, it’s actually taking it closer to the finish line,” Morales said.

Ventura Unified School District Asst. Superintendent of Business Services Betsy George

Ventura Unified School District Asst. Superintendent of Business Services Betsy George attributed the enrollment decline to a broad demographic trend.

“What we’re seeing is a declining birth rate, not just here but nationally,” George said. “People are waiting longer to have kids and having fewer kids.”

George said that in 2018-19, VUSD has 459 fewer students than in 2017-18. She noted the only two schools in the district that gained students, Mound and Foothill schools, are open enrollment schools.

“The entire county, state and country are experiencing lower birthrates — this is the primary reason for declining K-12 student population nationwide,” George said, noting that certain cities are hit harder than others.

“When cost of living creates challenges for new families to establish themselves, K-12 student enrollment declines are slightly higher than the nationwide average decline,” George said.

George noted that VUSD lost about 1,000 labor hours because of the Thomas Fire, but said that even before that, declining enrollment was having an effect.

“It affects our allocation (of state funding) and impacts our budget,” George said, but added that VUSD is careful to maintain the same average class size. She said that VUSD doesn’t expect the trend to continue.

“What we’re projecting is for the decline to flatten out, though not an increase,” said George.

Prof. Jamshid Damooei, Director of the Center for Economics of Social Issues at California Lutheran University

Prof. Jamshid Damooei, Director of the Center for Economics of Social Issues at California Lutheran University, corroborated George’s take on the reasons for declining enrollment.

“What is happening is that our demographics are changing rapidly,” said Damooei, whose research center explores the economic effects of social trends on the community.

“We have a reduction in the number of children, while the number of old people is going up,” Damooei said, citing a trend borne out by Ventura County’s recent birth and death rates.

“If you look at a projection of population in Ventura County, the calculations we have done show that the 15-years-old and under age group will drop by nearly 13 percent by 2060,” Damooei said.

“On the other hand, we’ve got this other age group, 85-years-old and over, that number in Ventura County by 2060 will increase by almost 300 percent,” Damooei continued.

“So, what it means is that we will become a much older population, our kids’ numbers are going down, our older members’ numbers are going up,” Damooei said. “What this suggests is that we really have to think about how to take care of the elderly.”

But although the population is generally moving toward becoming an older one nationally, some specific areas, like the one Rio School District serves, have demographics that buck the trend.

“The reason is that not all zip codes are uniform, particularly Hispanics tend to be comparatively younger than the white population, you really need to put more resources in those areas,” Damooei said.

“So, in some areas, enrollment is going up, in others it’s going down,” Damooei said. “It’s happening because we have different population structures in different places around the county.”

Of a sampling of 10 school districts countywide (there are 20 districts in Ventura County), from Ojai to Port Hueneme, Santa Paula and Conejo Valley, only one district (Rio School District) showed growth from 2013-2014 to 2017-2018.

Holy Cross School at Ventura Mission faces uncertain future as enrollment continues to shrink

Taken originally in March 2018 when shrinking enrollment caused concern about the school’s future.

by Chris O’Neal

The future of Ventura’s private Holy Cross School is in the air, with all parties involved unsure of whether or not the school will close, change hands or continue on as is.

In a letter to parents sent by The Rev. Thomas Elewaut, pastor of the attached San Buenaventura Mission and up until recently administrator of the Holy Cross School, Elewaut wrote that “over the past decade the viability of Holy Cross School has been in question” due to a decrease in enrollment. In 2017, the school touted 138 students, 2018 saw 119, and at the beginning of the 2019 school year, only 91 students were enrolled.

In 2018, Elewaut relinquished administration of the school over to the Department of Catholic Schools, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which established increased enrollment goals. The opposite occurred, however.

“There is no one reason for this situation that has been evolving since the mid-2000s,” wrote Elewaut. “However, we do know for several years there has been a general decline in school enrollments at this end of the county.”

Elewaut says that his hope is that the school will continue and that discussions are currently ongoing to transition Holy Cross School to St. Augustine Academy, a private Catholic school in Ventura County offering K-12 education. Elewaut says he hopes that this can be done by July 1, 2019.

“It’s in dire straits and I don’t have the answer,” said Elewaut. “It’s emotional for everyone and it’s really difficult, but if you inform people that you’re looking at things they get upset and if you don’t tell people they get upset; it’s an emotional time.”

Parents, teachers and students held a vigil on the evening of Friday, Feb. 1, at the school in support of the continuation of Holy Cross. Some have expressed confusion over the process and said that they are receiving mixed messages.

“Parents are really confused and I know because I send them emails asking them to voice their concerns,” said Luz Cortez-Cahue, president of the Parent-Teacher Organization. “They just don’t understand, if we’re under the Arch Diocese, why is this decision being made by our pastor? It just doesn’t make sense to us.”

With lingering uncertainty and no decision made as of yet, Elewaut ended his letter to parents and his follow-up bulletin, sent on Jan. 29, with a prayer.

“This is a time of transition for us all,” wrote Elewaut. “Let us pray to keep focused on the formation of our students and ask the Lord Jesus to be with us in this time of transition and change.”

Holy Cross School’s shrinking enrollment numbers year after year match the public school enrollment trend across Ventura County.