Mesa's enrollment losses spread across district, not just one area - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Mesa's enrollment losses spread across district, not just one area

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Posted: Thursday, September 23, 2010 2:57 pm | Updated: 11:08 pm, Wed Sep 29, 2010.

Each summer, families move away from Mesa's Lowell Elementary School. But the lost students are often replaced by families moving into the neighborhood, principal Sandi Kuhn says.

That didn't happen this year.

Lowell Elementary School, on the Broadway Road corridor in Mesa, saw enrollment drop 104 students from 10th day of last year to the 10th day of this year, one of the biggest losses on a Mesa Unified School District elementary campus.

The district reports more than 2,400 students fell off its rolls, based on early September numbers. More have enrolled at some schools since then, including Lowell.

While there were drastic changes at some of the junior high schools because of ninth-graders shifting to some of the high schools, many elementary schools saw losses for different reasons.

The student losses don't necessarily fall along geographic lines. They don't fall along economic lines either.

Webster and Lowell elementary schools on the southwest side of the district saw 100-plus students leave, but big losses were also seen at Red Mountain Ranch Elementary School on the northeast side of Mesa.

To get to the reasons for the losses, the district gathered foreclosure data, birthrate data, apartment vacancy ratios and more.

The foreclosures were all across the district, with clusters in some neighborhoods.

"It's pretty invasive. There are a lot of people regrettably losing their homes because of the economy," said Superintendent Mike Cowan. "We believe a lot of the loss, the dip we just had, is a direct result of economic pressures."

Red Mountain Ranch saw enrollment drop from 592 last year to 521 this year, more than 10 percent of its students.

The school has seen a steady decline over the last decade. During the 2001-02 school year, there were 886 students.

School officials also believe a large number of losses - as much as two-thirds - could be related to the state's new immigration law.

Kuhn said Lowell families told her last spring they would be leaving.

"(Senate Bill 1070) really scared a lot of our families. They had the false impression that if they were walking down the street their kids could be taken away," Kuhn said.

While some families stayed after a federal judge put pieces of the law on hold, many did move, telling Kuhn they were going to other states, such as Texas, or returning to Mexico.

"We have seen transition (through the years) but mostly it's in-out. We will have lost families out but also gain families in the summer," she said. "This year, families moved out but did not come in."

While the school lost a handful of teaching positions, there's also an emotional loss, Kuhn said.

"It impacts all of us. Many who left are families who have been with us for years," she said. "They were well known. There is a sadness, especially when we knew the circumstances why they've left."

At Webster, located near Mesa's light-rail stop in a very transient part of the city, principal Chuck Burger said there's no one reason why enrollment dropped from 817 last year to 664 this year, a change of 153 students.

"Of course the knee-jerk response is it's the immigration law. I'm not sure that there is enough evidence to support that's where this is coming from ... We've been declining for the past several years in the school district and in this school for the past several years," he said. "Charter schools are part of it. The senate bill is part of it. The mobility of this area is part of it."

The Mesa district has a lot of square footage that's going unused or underused.

The first step the district is taking is to analyze its portable usage on campus and consider whether getting rid of the portables would save the district money. There are 763 portable classrooms in the district that can hold more than 19,000 students at 25 students per classroom.

In addition, Cowan said over the next eight weeks the district will look at how much it costs to run each campus, beyond the teacher and classroom costs that are tied directly to the number of students on the site. By looking at custodial costs, administrative costs and more, the district will prepare recommendations to present to the governing board.

"As per board direction, we're looking at these as alternatives to closing campuses so we can run smaller, more cost efficient models at our elementaries and junior highs," he said.

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