Seattle Schools' Future Enrollment Trends

First off - paying for consultant W. Les Kendrick - is the best money this district has spent on a consultant in a long, long time.

Mr. Kendrick was the featured speaker at the Wednesday Work Session on Capacity Management and, despite a long PowerPoint (that he powered thru - staff take note), he was clear and concise.  And, boy is he a guy who likes his work - his enthusiasm for demographics was right out there.
Second, I'll get to what he said but I feel a deep sadness to what he told the room.   Why?  Because our district could have been tracking this all along and somehow didn't.  We have a demographer who is a very nice person but somehow all this data eluded staff.  We had parents, in all corners of the city, telling the district about housing projects and rising neighborhood birthrates.  And, we had, in the person of parent Kellie LaRue, someone raising these red flags and who should have been listened to because this is what she does for a living.

In short, it didn't have to get to be this bad.  Certainly, no one could have seen how long this recession would go on.  Certainly no one knew what the 2010 Census would show us.  But there was enough to have given anyone pause.

In short, his low, medium and high range of enrollment for SPS by 2020, is about 53,000, 56,000, and 60,000 respectively.  

One odd thing is that the October headcounts for 2011 are not included in this report (don't know why) and he urges the district to include those in their decisions.

Narrative highlights:

The assignment plan was one factor to drive enrollment higher but "enrollment had already been growing in the two years prior to that change.  So what is going on?"

Between October 2006 and October 2007, the District's enrollment declined by 392 students; the 5th straight year that enrollment declined.   By October 2008, enrollment had grown by 312 students and enrollment increased by another 392 students be October 2009. 

Clearly, some of the trends that are driving enrollment were already happening prior to the  implementation of the new assignment plan.  

Several districts around the Puget Sound like Lake Washington and Bellevue were experiencing the same thing - after years of decline, new growth.  Bellevue's growth between 2007-2010 was higher than any other district in King County.   And the faster growing districts, like Puyallup and Bethel, started slow enrollment declines.
    What happened?  Mr. Kendrick believes it was the collapse of the housing bubble.

    School districts that are dependent on new housing development for their growth have seen a decline in their enrollment trends as home construction and sales have slowed.

    The best explanation for what is happening is that people are not moving out to the surrounding areas and suburbs like they were during the housing boom years.

    The best evidence that people are not moving as much as they once did comes from the school district's own enrollment data. (bold mine).

    Mr. Kendrick explains that there is in-migration (students moving in over the course of a year) and out-migration (students moving out over the course of a school year).  He says that BOTH numbers are down for SPS since 2005-2006.  Basically, "fewer people are moving overall."   BUT, while the annual in-migration is only down a couple of hundred for the last couple of years, the out-migration number "shows almost 1000 fewer children and their families moving out of the school district between 2009 and 2010."

    Fewer families than usual are leaving the city.  AND it is important to note that this trend began BEFORE the new assignment plan was implemented.

      The pattern of lower out‐migration is also similar across neighborhoods.

      The most notable trend is at the kindergarten level.  He explains that there is no "systematic city count of preschool children that could be used" for kindergarten enrollment projections.

      So we cannot be sure if the increase in kindergarten enrollment since 2008 is due to fewer families with preschool age children leaving the city, or if it is due to more families with preschool children moving into the city prior to their children reaching kindergarten age. In fact, it could be a combination of both of these factors. 

      The biggest change at kindergarten  is the percentage of the birth cohort that is "captured" by the school district.

      This “capture rate” has increased dramatically since then, climbing to 57.3% in 2008 and 58.8% in  2009. With the implementation of the assignment plan change in 2010, the rate hit 63.4%.

      So where do private schools fit in?  Pretty much at the same rate as they always have.

      But it is interesting to note that at the same time that the Seattle Public Schools has seen an increase in its share of the birth cohort at kindergarten, the private schools have experienced a similar trend. The "attraction rate" for private schools is also up. It may well be that in the coming years the new assignment plan will influence parent decisions about public versus private schools, but so far there is no evidence to support this conclusion at the kindergarten level.

      What about going forward?  He points to a possible "cultural shift" in people who do not want to live in one place and work in another.

      So unless homes begin turning over at a more rapid pace, or a greater percentage of the available homes are bought by families with children, or who plan to have children, enrollment is unlikely to be impacted by any substantial change in in-migration rates.

      On the other hand it is likely that enrollment in Seattle and King County will increase in the coming decade due to an expected increase in births. The average number of births in Seattle between 2006 and 2009 (students eligible for school between 2011 and 2014) was approximately 7800, about 700 more per year than the period between 1995 and 2005.
      He took a look at Census data and found:

      Based on this analysis the K-12 population in Seattle is expected to grow by 7000 students in the coming decade.  Assuming Seattle continues to enroll about 76% of this population, with the remaining 24% in private schools, the District's enrollment would increase from 47,000 students in 2010 to about 53,000 by 2020.  
      His upper-end forecast?

      If the most recent out-migration rates were to continue out to 2020, with a kindergarten attraction rate of approximately 60% (the district would continue to enroll about 60% of the eligible birth cohort in a given year) then enrollment could grow to approximately 60,000 by 2020.

      From a planning point of view, it is much better to be ahead of a growth curve than behind it, especially with respect to facilities.

      He was very clear on this point to the Board; don't worry about building too much.  He believes the district will, by 2020, have the growth to support it even with the low forecast numbers of 53,000 students.  

      His conclusions:

      For this reason it is important that the District continue to explore the various methods suggested in this report (and others as well) to insure that the forecast methods consider and take account of pertinent information. 
      More specifically, it is recommendd that the District continue to monitor the regional K-12 enrollment picture. If growth begins to pick up in outlying areas this could be indicative of an increase in out-migration form the city of Seattle. The regional housing market should also be monitored. AS the regional real estate market improves out-migration from Seattle could accelerate. I would also recommend that the latest census data and the complied housing data be "mined" for its potential value in predicting future growth by neighborhood.

      Finally, it is worth nothing that while the District may be to blame for not being fully prepared for the recent trends, there is some argument to be made that the extent of the change would have been hard to predict initially.
      (bold mine)

      The best lesson to be learned is that it is important to gather as much demographic and contextual information as possible when doing projections. Even if this information does not lead to better forecasts in the coming year, it can, at the very least provide a better understanding of what is happening with enrollment.

      I believe Mr. Kendrick was being diplomatic here as he also clearly outlines where he went for his data and if he could line it up, I suspect others could have as well.

      Folks, I think this is going to be a tough next five years.  I feel deeply for all of you in the elementary and middle school grades where it seems apparent that it will be felt the most.

      This is an issue with a lot of moving parts.  It really needs a lot of eyes on deck and I hope now the district will listen to the input they get both from the FACMAC and from parents with their feet on the ground in their schools and communities.  

      Someone here commented on another thread (about the Board elections), that life would go on.  Indeed it will but what the district and Board do here and now will affect this district for decades to come.


      Andy said…
      Isn't Kendrick a former Superintendent of SPS?
      Not the same guy. He did work for the district previously as the demographer.
      Anonymous said…
      Good article, but here I disagree with you: "Certainly, no one could have seen how long this recession would go on."

      From a technical standpoint, the recession has been long over. But the high unemployment continues and was very predictable because what we're experiencing economically is not a normal business cycle but a financial crisis. Even if the economy miraculously began to produce 400,000 new jobs a month, it would take many years to bring down unemployment to levels that we used to think of as "normal." How many new jobs did the economy produce last month? Wasn't it 80,000? Barely enough to keep up with population increase.

      Without massive investment in new infrastructure (including education), I would not be surprised if the unemployment rate didn't come back down to the 4-5% range for another 10 years or more.

      dan dempsey said…
      We have a demographer who is a very nice person but somehow all this data eluded staff.

      To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data.
      David said…
      Long story short, fewer people are fleeing Seattle to find suburban schools as soon as they have children. And it sounds like that has more to do with people being unable to sell their homes than the quality of Seattle schools.

      At some point, the housing market will become more liquid again and people will be able to move. The question is what the district wants to happen at that point. Do they want to attract more people to Seattle Public Schools? Or do they want people to leave?

      The plan right now seems to be to shove as many students as possible into portables. That seems like a temporary solution (and not a pleasant one for students). Is the answer then that the district wants families to leave?
      Isn't the commute an issue? As the traffic gets worse and worse isn't there an attraction for living in the city if you work here?
      Dorothy Neville said…
      To answer Cliff and add my thoughts: the first thing that struck me with Kendricks conclusions is that Seattle is predicted to grow, period. The prediction is that the 2020 census will show a growth of about 60K people. This seemed regardless of the financial crisis and mortgages being underwater. So there is one source of school growth.

      Now the question remains: if the economy improves and people can be more mobile, will people revert to their old lifestyle choices and move to the suburbs when their kids are born? That's the assumption Sherry Carr has made over and over. Michael DeBell asked, however, what about changes in personal values, desiring time with family vs longer commute time (so staying in the city) and more environmental ethic, which would also mean staying in the city with a smaller personal energy footprint? That could drive a permanent change to out-migration, couldn't it?

      Kendrick couldn't answer, he said that it was a testable hypothesis, but he hasn't seen the data to show that yet. Now I am not sure what he meant, but he sounded convincing in the fact that he hasn't seen proof that this phenomenon exists yet. Has he looked for it though? I am not sure.

      Commute times were mentioned but what was not mentioned was commute costs. Gas prices are simply not going to fall back to the old days. Cars are more efficient, but still, many people like their big cars. So what's it going to be? People moving to big suburban houses with higher commute times, commute costs, energy costs or will the newer housing in Seattle be attractive enough to keep families?

      Additionally, I have to agree with another commenter and point out that Kendrick did emphasize that SPS CAN influence the magnitude of the enrollment increase by doing its best to provide good educational experience or not. So the longer things are grim with portables and overcrowded classrooms, the more likely we will end up on the lower end of the predicted enrollment increase.
      David and Dorothy (sounds like a '60s duo) are both right.

      How the district handles the next couple of years will likely influence if the growth is on the high end, what the reputation of the district is and if, after the economy turns around, they can retain these new students.
      Anonymous said…
      Can I also throw AL into the equation here? We have flight out of the Seattle public schools because advanced learning program is unstable and spotty, and the curriculum quality and program support is a constant moving target.

      Districts like Lake Washington are a draw because of the dual perception that their programs are more rigorous, plus parents can count on them to be relatively stable. And we have an obscenely high rate of private school students, due in part to waffling by SPS about whether we will support quality Spectrum programs or not.

      Hopefully this newly formed AL committee can restore some stability and accountability to the AL programs.

      - dad to AL kid, who's thinking of fleeing
      juicygoofy said…
      Excellent article. And I have to agree with Cliff Mass. Nowadays, and especially in Seattle, many families with young children strive for a different lifestyle than that of previous generations who have flocked to the suburbs. Think of all the young parents who are single car families, prefer to bike to work, walk to school, shop locally, etc. Seattle tech companies (mainly Amazon) are hiring at record rates, hiring young people, and they are going to settle within the city and have kids (and gifted kids, at that.) I would expect growth in local schools regardless of the recession or property values.
      Benjamin Leis said…
      One interesting thing about most of the population growth in Seattle is that it has been driven by the construction of 1 and 2 bedroom apartments. For the most part these are not currently inhabited by families with children. It will take a real shift in lifestyles or building patterns for any district growth to come out of the general city's population growth.

      Assuming that doesn't change then any growth is upwardly bounded by the existing stock of SFH homes and the capture rate of the school generation.

      Ben, that's a great point. Here in Ravenna/Roosevelt, we are getting a light rail station and the call is for density. When we ask about apartment/condos that are family-sized, there's a lot of looking at the ground. It can't all be singles and retired folks. There has to be housing for families and that may not be a house.

      It practically forces families to move far away.
      Josh Hayes said…
      A little northwest of that area, Melissa, in the North-of-85th but South-of-Northgate area has been a huge amount of "townhouse" construction in the last 10-15 years; my own experience seeing people going in and out of those dwellings is that a lot of them have kids (the people, not the dwellings - but how cute would THAT be? Little sheds, right?). It's relatively inexpensive housing, too.

      All that being said, however, it would be interesting to see whether or not private enrollment is also up -- that would indicate simple growth of the school-age population -- or steady (or even falling), which would implicate economic conditions.
      Anonymous said…
      My daughter's private high school has its largest 9th grade class EVER this year. I don't know too many people with elementary-aged kids, but I know that schools like Westside in West Seattle are growing, so is Explorer West Middle School (located just on the west-side of Roxbury so technically in White Center). Overall city growth and continued dissatisfaction with SPS offerings.

      Solvay Girl
      Jan said…
      Reading these comments reminds me that there IS a bit of "crystal ball gazing" in the future projections for schools. Here is what I think IS cool, though. When you involve people like Kendrick (and Kellie, and others, who know how to do this stuff well), you can finally start having debates and discussions on all these issues. My recollection is that there was NONE of this going on -- NONE -- during the big "school closure" that happened under MGJ. Just some power-pointy slides that created an illusion of analysis -- and then whatever predetermined decision the staff had already agreed on.

      Maybe when it comes to predicting, we won't be right this time either, but at least we will have hard numbers to reflect back on, and we will know what criteria we used to take our best shot at the predictions.
      Anonymous said…
      I've been lurking here with interest as this all sounds extremely familiar. I live in Portland, where Portland Public Schools is experiencing the same thing, particularly in younger grades:

      So, it's not specific to Seattle. PPS and Portland State University demographers have attributed our enrollment rise to the economy (higher capture rate) and to more families with young children staying in the city, which may also have to do with the economy and the inability to move. Although, in the Portland metro area at least, housing is more affordable in the many of the suburbs than it is in the city. Anecdotally, families have made lifestyle changes and many of us prefer walkable, bikeable, close-in neighborhoods with lots of transit and independent stores.

      In any event, PPS has embarked on a multi-year process to "balance enrollment":

      We're much of the way the first part of the process:

      Good luck SPS families! I hope the district thinks twice before closing more schools in the future.


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