Student watch: Educators closely monitor enrollment numbers for coming school year

On a recent morning, a colorful banner appeared on a fence outside Abston Elementary School in the southwest Las Vegas valley.

“The building office is officially open,” according to the message printed in blue letters. “We invite families to register children. We are excited to serve you!”

Principal Jeff Hybarger talks with a reporter during a tour of Sandra B. Abston Elementary School as it nears completion in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

The banner serves as a friendly reminder to neighborhood families who may not realize a new elementary school — featuring sparkling computer labs, large windows and a spacious courtyard — is opening this year. But it also speaks to the numbers watch occuring at campuses across the Clark County School District each year: If schools don’t reach their projected enrollment, they risk losing staff members.

So every summer, educators such as Principal Jeff Hybarger wait with bated breath and a touch of optimism as they monitor their enrollment numbers. The district’s projected enrollment for Abston — one of its two new elementary schools welcoming students in August — is 724. As of Thursday, 672 students had registered, leaving a gap of 52.

“It’s hard to say what we’ll get,” said Hybarger, who, as principal, is shepherding Abston through its debut. But he struck a more hopeful tone later in the conversation: “I’m confident that we’ll be where we need to be.”

Principal Jeff Hybarger as seen during a tour of Sandra B. Abston Elementary School as it nears completion in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Forecasting enrollment

The 724 number didn’t just fall out of thin air. It represents months of planning and calculations that happen throughout the year as the nation’s fifth-largest school district tries to predict how many children it will be educating. The process falls somewhere between an art and a science given the many factors at play — the economy, family moves, and charter schools, to name a few. Simply put, there’s always some fluctuation.

“We’ll gain just in elementary almost 3,000 students from the beginning of the school year until May 1,” said Rick Baldwin, the district’s director of demographic zoning and geographic information systems. “We have some schools that will gain 70, 80 additional students in that time frame.”

The process starts with a districtwide enrollment projection, which is calculated in October or early November, Baldwin said. It involves analyzing existing enrollment numbers and factors that may cause numbers to shift. 

For instance, the department has one staff member whose entire job revolves around tracking residential communities in Clark County, Baldwin said. New housing developments or apartment complexes mean more children, many of whom will enroll in traditional public schools.

On average, 100 single-family homes yield about 17 elementary-age students, while 100 apartment units or condos generally contain about 14 children who attend elementary school, Baldwin said. Separate calculations exist for middle and high schools.

The district’s enrollment count for the 2018-2019 school year was 320,703 students, but that figure doesn’t include pre-kindergarten because those children are not included in state apportionment funding. Early childhood programs receive funding through state categorical grants and federal money. 

Still, the school district must find space to accommodate pre-kindergarten students. That’s why Baldwin — essentially the chief enrollment guru — likes to say the district served about 326,000 students, including 5,363 pre-kindergarteners, last year.

Baldwin said the school district expects to serve 321,021 students in the upcoming school year.

After forecasting districtwide enrollment, Baldwin’s team tackles its next task — estimating the number of students who will attend each school. Principals and school organizational teams learn the projected enrollment numbers when strategic budgets arrive in January. 

The staffing levels based on projected enrollment, however, could change after what’s called “Count Day,” which occurs several weeks into the school year and determines staffing and state funding. Baldwin said the “Count Day” will happen shortly after Labor Day this year.

Why the delay? The district tends to see 20,000 fewer students than projected during the first two weeks of school, perhaps because families haven’t pre-enrolled their children or they’re busy moving to new residences, Baldwin said. So a “Count Day” in early September often produces more accurate enrollment numbers.

“With anything, of course, there are drawbacks and side effects,” Baldwin said. “You potentially have students sitting in school for four weeks and then potential changes to staffing after students have been in class.”

Enrollment trends

Three decades ago, the Clark County School District’s student population was about one-third of the size it is now. Rampant growth in the 1990s and early 2000s pushed enrollment from 105,151 students in the 1988-1989 school year to more than 300,000 by 2006. 

Enrollment growth continued until the Great Recession, when it dipped and leveled off for a few years. Then, as the economy improved, the number of students started climbing again.

The school district’s enrollment fell by .5 percent in the 2018-2019 academic year, marking the first decline in seven years. Baldwin said the district’s elementary enrollment is decreasing, while middle and high school enrollment is increasing. 

Some of the elementary decrease can be attributed to the expanding portfolio of charter schools, which are public schools that operate under a performance contract issued by a public entity.

About 42,000 students across Nevada attended state-sponsored charter schools last year, and officials expect that number to increase for the 2019-2020 academic year. Four new state-sponsored charter schools, which likely will enroll a combined 2,500 students, are opening this year in Southern Nevada, said Pat Hickey, executive director of the Charter School Association of Nevada. (Another charter, Nevada Virtual Academy, closed its underperforming elementary program at the end of the 2018-2019 year, displacing several hundred students.)

The Clark County School District has increased its marketing efforts to curb the flow of students fleeing for charters — a situation that carries a financial implication given that state per-pupil funding follows those children. Charter growth also led to the district abandoning plans to build a new elementary school in North Las Vegas. After a few charters popped up, enrollment numbers dropped in nearby traditional public schools.

Baldwin said he told his boss, “Pull this project. We no longer need it.”

But dialogue between district and charter officials has improved in recent years, he said, making enrollment projections and capital planning easier. Baldwin said the district doesn’t have an exact tally of how many students it has lost to charters. Last year, the district blamed $4 million of its deficit on revenue reductions tied to students leaving for charters.

While more charters are coming into the fold, the four new schools are the first to open since 2017. Hickey said charters have helped with overcrowding at traditional public schools and provided families with another option.

“The four this year represent a process that takes time,” he said. “There’s a lot of charter schools that never open because they don’t make the cut. It’s not easy to open a charter school, nor should it be.”

Charter schools certainly aren’t the only cause for decreasing enrollment. Other factors, such as Millennials starting families later and the fallout from the Great Recession, are playing a role, Baldwin said. Clark County births peaked at 30,584 during the 2007-2008 school calendar year (measured from October through September for school-eligibility purposes) and then dropped by roughly 5,000 within five years, according to district data. There were 25,771 births in the 2012-2013 school calendar year.

As a result, the incoming cohorts of sixth- and seventh-graders — all the pre-recession babies — are noticeably larger than lower grades.

Hundreds of chairs as seen in the lunch room during a tour of Sandra B. Abston Elementary School as it nears completion in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Prepping for a debut

Hybarger, the principal of Abston Elementary School, knows he has competition. The school was built to relieve overcrowding at three nearby elementary schools — Rogers, Goolsby and Hayes — but that doesn’t make enrollment an automatic. Families could enroll their children in private, charter or online schools rather than take a chance on a new school. 

The veteran educator said he has a plan to make Abston — home of the astros — a desirable choice. His long-term vision includes reaching a 1-to-1 ratio for students and technology devices and developing a robust STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program. 

A goal more difficult to measure, of course, is creating a welcoming environment.

“You have to build a community, a school, that is really an inviting place for children but also an inviting place for their whole family,” he said.

As murals go up on walls and furniture moves into classrooms, Hybarger and his office staff are busy checking enrollment totals each day. But he’s confident hundreds of blue chairs stacked recently in the cafeteria will be occupied by students come Aug. 12, the first day of school.

Leaders who worked for months to boost school safety react to cut in proposed spending

A 25-member group convened last year by former Gov. Brian Sandoval had clear instructions: Identify and recommend practices that would bolster school safety.

The creation of the School Safety Task Force came after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting rattled the nation — another tragedy in a seemingly unending stream of them — and ignited new conversations about how to protect students and staff. And so the school superintendents, principals, charter school representatives, teachers, parents, law enforcers and lawmakers who made up this group got to work, analyzing physical infrastructure and student well-being.

After four public meetings and other workgroup get-togethers, the task force delivered a final report to Sandoval with six multi-pronged recommendations. The former governor took those suggestions into consideration as he crafted a budget to hand off to his successor, Gov. Steve Sisolak. Sisolak included $76 million — about $54 million of that being new funds — over the upcoming biennium for school safety needs.

But lawmakers chopped that dollar amount by roughly $30 million last week, noting that schools sometimes have a difficult time onboarding a large number of new social workers and that larger school districts could make many of the infrastructure improvements in the budget using their own capital funds. That frustrated some members of the task force.

“Overall, I think it’s very sad we’ve come to the point where legislators are having to choose between programs to bolster student mental health and well-deserved teacher raises,” said Caryn Swobe, a parent member of the task force. “I just think legislators in the past have done a huge disservice to our students by so severely restricting our ability to raise revenue. They are just so short-sighted. There’s just not enough money.”

The reduction stemmed from an ongoing conundrum facing the governor and state lawmakers — how to free up money for teacher raises promised by Sisolak. The Clark County School District says it can’t afford to award raises and, therefore, didn’t include money for that purpose in a final budget adopted earlier this week. The situation has led to public haggling between district officials and the governor’s office.

Although Republicans have seized on the rollback of the school safety budget and argued that it will endanger children, Democrats have tried to frame the situation as a glass half full. Assembly Democrats issued a press release on Monday emphasizing that they have allocated $23 million in new school safety funding above levels in the current biennium and blamed Republicans for blocking school safety legislation in prior sessions.

“What’s being proposed now, while less than what was recommended by the commission, is still a substantial increase in school safety funding,” said Democratic Sen. Yvanna Cancela, who sat on the task force. “I’m grateful the governor took into full consideration the commission’s recommendations, and I’m proud of the work the Legislature has done to be both fiscally responsible and also increase school safety more than we’ve done in a very long time.”

The task force didn’t request a specific dollar amount for school safety needs, but their recommendations carried an obvious price tag. For instance, the group suggested the state make a “significant investment” in school-based mental health professionals and expand the number of school police officers.

David Jensen, superintendent of the Humboldt County School District, said the late-in-session cut to proposed school safety funding didn’t come as a total surprise given the education revenue struggles.

“I would say more a disappointment because there is a clear need to address the school safety issues across the state,” he said.

Task force members especially expressed concern about how the funding cut would hamper efforts to increase the number of school social workers, nurses, psychologists, counselors and safety personnel — in other words, staff members who are often the first line of defense in recognizing students struggling with mental health issues.

The vice chairwoman of the task force, Republican Assemblywoman Jill Tolles, said the piece she was fighting hardest for was getting social workers in schools.

“I would like ... to see us fill [social work positions] as soon as possible because not only does it have implications on student well-being and school safety, it also relieves a lot of burden from teachers’ workload,” Tolles said. “I hear from teachers all the time that they are frustrated with having to play so many different roles and not being able to dedicate their time into what is their profession: teaching and successful student academic outcomes.”  

Pilar Biller, a task force member and teacher at Damonte Ranch High School, said she envisioned the group’s recommendations as a “starting point” that would be expanded over time. She said the recommendations should have been fully funded.

“The more support our students and families have, the more likely it is that we can identify students who are experiencing mental illness, suffering with high levels of anxiety, or feeling marginalized,” she said in a statement. “Everyone should feel safe at school and reaching that goal is a complex journey. Our schools are understaffed, failing to come close [to] the expert recommendations.”

With 12 days left in the legislative session, it’s possible more money shifting could occur, leading to a restoration of school safety funds. Pat Hickey, a task force member and executive director of the Charter School Association of Nevada, said he is “sympathetic” to Sisolak, who must balance budget requests with the reality of available funds.

“I’m sure they will look for money and they’ve retained some of that in there,” said Hickey, who previously served in the Legislature. “But, again, there is only so much money to go around, and I guess that’s why any governor sits in the chair that he or she does and has to make those difficult decisions.”

A large part of the rollback was to funds initially destined to go to infrastructure improvements — gates and other reinforcements that could prevent a school shooting. While the budget committees set aside some money to help rural districts with those improvements, they’re excluding Clark and Washoe Counties from the funds, saying the bigger districts have other ways to pay for capital projects, including local bonds and a tax hike.

That decision drew differing reactions from the two large districts.

“What I’m really concerned about is some of the infrastructure,” Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara said in an interview. “My conversation with the governor today and his staff — they’re concerned as well. We’re trying to find ways ... that I can try to plug up some of the holes around some of these issues to make sure that we can continue to show that our children are safe in school.”

The Washoe County School District, on the other hand, said the reduction won’t affect them in the short term because voters approved a sales tax hike in 2016 to support capital improvements. They expect to still be able to install security perimeters and single points of entry in their elementary and middle school campuses by the fall, with improvements to high schools happening later.

“From WC-1 passing in 2016 we have what we need for capital projects for the moment, which includes safety and security upgrades,” said Riley Sutton, a spokesman for the district. “We honestly probably couldn’t spend any more money on capital projects even if it was available – we are competing against ourselves for contractors and labor. Medium and long range, that’s harder to say.”

John Anzalone, principal of Sierra Vista High School in Las Vegas, wasn’t on the task force, but he has been vocal about safety needs. The funding cut last week disappointed him. He had planned to put extra money toward new cameras.

“It's just coming from our pocket, when the extra funds could've helped,” Anzalone said. “Any additional funding would have come a long way. Now we have to be more strategic about what we do."

For Anthony Petrosino, the director of the Justice and Prevention Research Center at the think tank WestEd and a non-voting member of Nevada’s School Safety Task Force, the quality of the safety investments and the strategy behind them are more important than sheer volume. After all, he said, the most common problems students face in school relate to bullying and mental health issues; a school shooting is actually a statistically rare event.

“If we have these resources, how can we be smart about them? Where can we devote those resources? Where would it make a bigger difference?” he asked. “You could invest $500 million in school safety, and you still might not be able to prevent a school shooting. Even if you turn every school into a fortress, I don’t think you are going to be able to prevent an issue that’s actually plaguing all of society.”