Sonoma Valley Unified School District looks at closing schools, reconfiguring grades to address drop in enrollment
Closing and consolidating schools as well as reconfiguring grade distributions on campuses are among the options the Sonoma Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees may consider implementing in the next few months to address dwindling student enrollment.
“I’m going to go ahead and name the elephant in the room — that is consolidation,” said Josh S. Jackson, senior associate for Perkins-Eastman who presented at the board meeting on Thursday, Jan. 12. “That is a strategy that should be considered by Sonoma Valley. When we look at that, it might mean reducing the number of elementary schools or middle schools, or reconfiguring how these work.
“It can help to achieve better educational outcomes and better return on investment when you channel your resources into a smaller number of sites.”
Perkins-Eastman — a global planning, design and consulting company — is collaborating with the district on its Facilities Master Plan, and Jackson’s presentation on Thursday was intended to prepare board members for a study session scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 21. According to the timeline he provided, the board is slated to enact facility restructuring plans for the 2023-24 academic year by April 20 and for the 2024-25 and 2025-26 school years by April 22.
Based on Perkins-Eastman’s research and conversations with school board members and staff, as well as community members, Jackson presented possible models the district could adopt. One model consolidated the two middle schools into one school and the five elementary schools into three schools.
“We also want to think carefully about the configuration of the schools,” Jackson said. “Different grade configurations can achieve different outcomes.”
He explained that the current division of schools into grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 could be changed in one of several ways, such as establishing K-8 and 9-12 schools or K-4, 5-8 and 9-12 schools.
“There’s no magic bullet where you create a bunch of K-8s and you solve all your problems, but K-8 can help to improve some of the retentions between elementary school and middle school,” he said. “You then have to make sure that the gyms and labs that seventh- and eighth-grade students use are available, so there are additional challenges there.
“You can also think about switching to a 5-8 middle school model to have more of a balance — four years of elementary school, four years of middle school and four years of high school, which provides some flexibility in things like staffing and transportation.”
Jackson also described two models that would establish early childhood schools. One of them would have a school for grades K-1, 2-4, 5-8 and 9-12, while the other would include schools for grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12.
In summary, Jackson said that at this point, all of these models are simply possibilities, and that other options could emerge.
“We don’t want to say that one of these is the right answer, but these are all things that we want you to be thinking about in the coming days,” he told the board.
The board members all voiced a need for some sort of restructuring and acknowledged that they — and the Sonoma Valley community in general — will be facing some tough choices.
“This isn’t the most fun conversation that we’re going to make as a community,” said Trustee Celeste Winders. “This isn’t a decision that any of us love. This isn’t a conversation that we’re looking forward to when we talk about definitely reconfiguring schools and potentially closing them due to declining enrollment.”
Student enrollment at the district has fallen from 4,008 in 2015-16 to 3,142 in 2022-23 and is projected to drop to 3,024 in 2023-24. The district will lose an average of 92 students during each of the next nine academic years, reaching a low of 2,413 in 2031-32. Several factors account for the situation, including the Valley’s lack of affordable housing, students attending other school districts and a steadily declining birthrate.
The school district has five elementary schools, two K-8 charter schools, two middle schools, one primary high school and one alternative high school. And the change in population in not hitting all schools equally.
The 2022-23 student enrollment dropped by 2% from the prior academic year. Schools with the largest increases in enrollment were Flowery Elementary School at 10%, Altimira Middle School at 8% and Sassarini Elementary School 8%. The largest decline are at Creekside High School, down 34%, Dunbar Elementary School dropped 23% and Adele Harrison Middle School’s 15% drop.
“This is a fairly simple structure for a school district, but when we look at that overall structure, when we look at the enrollment patterns, we see that at some of these schools, the average enrollment is quite low,” Jackson said. “That has impact both in terms of educational outcomes and operational efficiency in running the programs. So, there are some tricky challenges to look at even in a district with this simple structure.”
Board members indicated they will continue to seek public input and the help of staff to help assess the best way to restructure the district.
“I think we’ll be prepared to listen,” said Trustee John Kelly.
Jackson provided a timeline for the process (see fact box) and emphasized the importance of the coming weeks.
“Although the Facilities Master Plan is a long-term plan that is looking out a decade or even more, you guys have some decisions to make this spring that will have very serious impacts on the Facilities Master Plan,” he said. “The timing of this is really critical and there is some urgency to it.”
Board President Anne Ching added, “I think this is one of the greatest challenges we’ll have to face as a board.”
Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at firstname.lastname@example.org.