Some Nevada County schools see better than expected enrollment |

Some Nevada County schools see better than expected enrollment

Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning students gather in the entrance of their school's new location at the former Nevada City Elementary School site last week as they say hello to fellow classmates and figure out where their classes are.
Elias Funez/

As Nevada County begins the 2018-19 school year, early numbers are indicating an increase in the number of students enrolled over the past several years.

Nevada County superintendent of schools Scott Lay reported county schools are “cautiously optimistic” when looking at numbers he said have increased or at least bottomed out.

Lay provided expected enrollment numbers from July 2018, noting that the unpredictability of the first day of school would likely change those statistics.

A small number of families new to the community, he said, wait until the first day of school or after to enroll. He also indicated that some enrollment numbers have remained steady after years of decline.

“There’s a general optimism among superintendents that things might be finally bottoming out or we are starting to see some changes as the economy improves and people are moving.”— Brett McFadden, Nevada Joint Union High School District superintendent


Twin Ridges Elementary, Union Hill Elementary, Clear Creek Elementary and Chicago Park Elementary school districts, he said, saw an increase in enrollment or maintained a consistent number of students between 2014-15 and 2018-19. Sierra Montessori school saw the biggest increase in the same years, with its enrollment increasing 56 percent.

But the overall enrollment of county schools has seen a decline over the past 20 years, down 15 percent in all public school enrollment since the 1997-98 school year. Enrollment in the county peaked at 15,119 students in 2003-04 but has since dropped by nearly 25 percent, more than 3,500 students, and has led to the doors closing on a half dozen schools in western Nevada County.

Graphs created by Content Editor Samantha Sullivan

Lay was pleased to say last week one district that has seen a surprising increase is Penn Valley Union Elementary, which has had to hire a number of new teachers for the current school year.

“We’ve had 10 years of decline,” said Penn Valley Union school district superintendent Torie England. “The increase is unheard of and significant — about 4 to 7 percent each year.”

Two Penn Valley school districts consolidated in 2014 after watching their enrollments decline by half over a 15-year period. That consolidation led to the closure of Pleasant Valley School.

England said her district has gained about 20 new students this year. She said she thinks the district’s emphasis on customer service has made a significant impact, and that communication with parents has helped them to understand all that the district has to offer.


Brett McFadden, superintendent of Nevada Joint Union High School District, also reported an increase in students enrolled in his district.

“We have noticed an uptick in students,” said McFadden. “Numbers are fluctuating and will settle in a week or so. We projected 2,515 for this year for all schools (in the NJUHSD) and today we were at 2,628. We are noticing that we are above our projected number from last year so that’s been very positive.”

State records show the district had 2,801 students in 2017-18, down 40 percent from a high enrollment of 4,657 in 1998-99, and down 29 percent from 3,942 students in 2007-08.

McFadden added that it’s common for schools to experience a bit of instability in numbers during the first weeks of the school year for a number of reasons.

Some students feel they would be better suited in a charter or alternative school, some are experiencing issues at home, and some simply move to a new town.

“There’s a general optimism among superintendents that things might be finally bottoming out or we are starting to see some changes as the economy improves and people are moving,” said McFadden.


Meanwhile, Grass Valley School District officials are celebrating an increase in student numbers as well.

Brian Martinez, assistant superintendent, said that at the end of the 2017-18 academic year, about 1,736 students were enrolled. Early into 2018-19, Martinez said they now have 1,800 students in district classrooms.

Though he expects to have more stable numbers in October, that current number would reflect the highest enrollment the district has seen since 1,848 students reported in 2003-04. The district had an enrollment of 2,132 students in 1996-97, and dropped to 1,653 in 2005-06. Grass Valley Schools closed Bell Hill Elementary in 2005 and Hennessy Elementary in 2012.

Two charter programs at those school sites have seen strong growth that has helped buoy the district’s overall enrollment. Grass Valley Charter School has grown from 241 students in 2007-08 to 516 students in 2017-18, while Bell Hill Academy opened with 170 students in 2012-13 and enrolled 221 in 2017-18.

With the closures, remaining traditional public schools Scotten Elementary and Lyman Gilmore Middle schools have seen steady enrollment over the past 10 years, each hovering around 500 students.

Nevada City School District superintendent Trisha Dellis said her district’s enrollment numbers have remained steady so far this year — and that’s good news for a district that has dwindled from 1,669 students in 1996-97 to 832 in 2017-18.

The district closed Nevada City Elementary in 2010 and Gold Run Elementary one year later, when enrollment stood at 975 students.

“We’re just really status quo and haven’t gone up or down (this year),” Dellis said. “For us it’s a good thing. We’ve been trying to level out our grade levels.”

Dellis said her schools are considered basic-aid schools, meaning they are not funded per-child. The district’s funding, Dellis said, comes from property taxes.

Decline bottoming out?

The early reported increases are a welcome sight to local educators.

Nevada County schools enrolled approximately 13,456 in the 1997-98 academic year. By 2017-18 that number had declined to about 11,424.

Lay said much of that decline can be attributed to families leaving the area due to a lack of high-to-moderate paying jobs and limited access to affordable housing.

“We’ve been working with the (Nevada County) Economic Resource Council because (we need) affordable housing,” said Lay. “Our county is expensive to live in.”

Funding for most schools is based not only on enrollment but on attendance. Even if a child is sick and provides a note, the school is still vulnerable to losing or being denied funds based on the number of seats filled in the classroom.

Fewer students in the classroom means fewer dollars in funding.

“In education when you have declined enrollment it’s really difficult to catch up,” Lay said. “You can’t make cuts fast enough to catch up to declining enrollment.”

Overall, several superintendents said they are looking forward with optimism and hope the better than expected early enrollment reports become a trend.

“Given the numbers we’re seeing, I’m happy,” McFadden said.

Jennifer Nobles is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at or 530-477-4231.

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