As Del Mar district enrollment declines, board to explore transitional kindergarten

The Del Mar Union School District office.
(Karen Billing)

Enrollment in the Del Mar Union School District continues to decline. Districtwide enrollment for the 2023-24 school year is now at 3,734 students, down from 4,132 in 2019 and 3,753 students last year.

With the enrollment decreasing, the district is now considering adding transitional kindergarten, at the board’s direction.

The district’s enrollment projections are driven by birth rates by zip code, the number of students generated from residential developments and tracking “cohort survival,” the migration of students among each grade level. The district sees an increase of current students by grade level of about 3% each year—the only grade level change that has seen a decline is from fifth to sixth grade when many families opt to enter the private school system.

Birth rates for the Carmel Valley and Del Mar zip code for the current kindergarten class born in 2018, were at 635 children (89 in Del Mar and 536 in Carmel Valley). The district had expected a kindergarten class of 475 but it currently sits at 349 students. Last year’s kindergarten class was 392 students.

“We were anticipating a higher number of students coming to enroll at our schools but, as of July 17, they were not materializing,” said Ryan Stanley, assistant superintendent of human resources.

The kindergarten enrollment window remains open and they are projecting 390 students in the kindergarten class, significantly lower than the numbers by all demographics projections.

The enrollment trends are not unique to Del Mar, Stanley said. About two-thirds of districts across California are also experiencing decline and K-12 enrollment in the state has also dropped below 6 million for the first time. The last two years, enrollment has been impacted by the pandemic and many districts expected this to be the “bounce back” year, Stanley said, however, the lower numbers they are experiencing may now represent the new normal.

Starting in the 2024-25 school year, the district is anticipating an increase of 100 additional K-6 students with the reopening of Del Mar Heights School.

At the board’s July 26 meeting, Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Chris Delehanty said the declining data they have been receiving gave them a lot of pause—districtwide, they could be down to 3,400 students in the next five years, impacting programs and space. A special board meeting was scheduled in July to share new information with the board as the district weighs options moving forward.

For facilities implications, there will be open rooms at most school sites this coming school year, a total of 19 districtwide. There are four empty rooms at Ashley Falls, Torrey Hills, Ocean Air and Sycamore Ridge; two at Pacific Sky, and one at Del Mar Hills (all classrooms are occupied at Carmel Del Mar and Sage Canyon).

The decline in enrollment means no new revenue into the district but a decrease in expenditures. Delehanty said the board’s direction has been for staff to explore the feasibility of adding in transitional kindergarten.

Transitional kindergarten (TK) refers to the first year of a two-year kindergarten program that uses a modified kindergarten curriculum that is developmentally and age-appropriate. By 2025-26, TK is expected to be fully phased in for all 4-year-old children statewide at no cost to families.

According to the California Department of Education, all school districts are required to provide TK to age-eligible children, “as a condition of receipt of apportionment”. The Del Mar district, as a community-funded basic aid school district supported by property taxes, does not receive state funding for TK.

Of the 133 districts that are TK eligible in the state, eight don’t offer it and five are in San Diego County: TK is also not offered in four other local basic aid districts: Encinitas, Cardiff, Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach.

Historically the majority of the board has supported TK but questioned how they would fund it. As Delehanty explained, the cost for one K-6 section is $143,000 on average, the total cost for a staff member. The cost for transitional kindergarten (TK) section is $186,000, as the district is required by law to have another adult in the classroom with the certificated teacher.

Delehanty said staff is projecting that in the 2023-24 school year, they could potentially have 3.1 TK sections.

Trustee Katherine Fitzpatrick, a longtime advocate for TK, said the situation highlights the difference between basic aid schools and schools that receive funding from the state per average daily attendance (ADA)—Del Mar is not dependent on enrollment so when enrollment decreases, they basically have more money to spend, she said.

“We’ve seen the light with enrollment, it’s really down this year so now we’re talking about TK. But TK is being delivered in 90% of basic aid districts across the state,” Fitzpatrick said. “Let’s deliver the instruction and the curriculum that the rest of the four-year-olds in our state are given access to. We are falling behind in that regard. We are just as capable financially and in all other regards to be able to provide this program.”

Fitzpatrick said she would love the district to start offering TK this coming school year, knowing there are empty classrooms and waiting lists at preschools all around.

While he believes the district should be offering TK, board President Gee Wah Mok’s concern is that they offer a sustainable program that lives up to district standards. Mok said he wasn’t sure it was feasible to start a program now with just weeks before school starts on Aug. 14.

“I believe in TK, I think it’s necessary,” said Mok, himself a father of a four-year-old.

Looking ahead, Stanley and Delehanty said the district would continue to review the demographic forecasts and start seeking input from current and prospective parents as well as teachers—they need to have conversations with the Del Mar California Teachers Association about the impacts of starting this new program.

The board is expected to continue to discuss the TK topic at upcoming workshops.