In growing cities, a loss of students

Schools aren't sure why enrollment is down. Some experts cite rising fears among illegal immigrants.

Where did the students disappear to?

Public school officials in several districts in Arizona, California, and Texas – particularly those with a high share of Hispanic students – are seeing a drop in enrollment this school year over last, and many are at a loss to explain it.

The drop is noticeable but not huge – in the range of 1 to 4 percent – and some administrators shrug it off as normal fluctuation or say the missing students, whose families tend to be transient, may yet enroll later in the year. Other analysts posit that the abrupt end to the housing boom has seen construction jobs dry up in these areas and people have simply moved elsewhere for work, kids in tow.

But Miriam, a single mother from Mexico who lives in the Phoenix metro area, offers a different explanation. Five families who lived in the same apartment complex as she does have recently packed up and returned to Mexico, and between them they had 10 children who used to attend a local elementary school, she says. They were "panicked" about a new Arizona law that cracks down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, says Miriam, who would speak only on a first-name basis even though she says she is in the US on a "visitor's visa."

There's some anecdotal evidence that what Miriam has seen is occurring elsewhere in Arizona and in out-of-state communities with laws unfriendly to illegal immigrants. The declining school enrollments could be the strongest proof yet that the frostier climate is driving at least some undocumented workers out of the US – or deeper underground.

While many factors are probably contributing to the enrollment dip, most experts agree it is due at least in part to the federal government's high-profile raids at job sites to snag undocumented workers, as well as to some 1,200 initiatives introduced at the local level to target illegal immigrants.

Legal status not a prerequisite

Children are not required to show that they have legal residency to enroll in public schools, due to a landmark 1982 US Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe. But parents or guardians increasingly worried about detection or deportation may be disinclined to send their kids to school, analysts say.

"The downturn in the economy, especially the housing industry, as well as ... workplace raids and tightening up on Social Security numbers, are having their desired effect," says Michael Olivas, an expert on immigration law and policy at the University of Houston. "They not only get the people they target, but others [legally in the US who leave because they feel unwelcome]. They put the fear of God in some of these folks."

Whatever the broader economic impact of the battle against illegal immigration, schools can immediately measure the budget consequences of lower enrollment.

The state of Arizona, for example, funds schools at the rate of $4,000 to $6,000 per student per year, depending on certain criteria. For Mesa, which saw public school enrollment citywide drop by some 1,400 students this year to 72,525, that could mean at least $5.6 million less funding.

Likewise, several of two dozen school districts in Phoenix – particularly those serving Hispanic neighborhoods – are reporting lower enrollments. Four weeks into the school year, Isaac Elementary School District in west-central Phoenix, where most of the student body is Hispanic, had 4.3 percent fewer students than at the same time last year, dropping from 8,561 to 8,190.

Gabriel Garcia, principal of an elementary school in the Isaac district, says he sees the enrollment fluctuation as normal because people living in the district tend to be on the move. "We're in a high rental area," he says. "We have two apartment complexes that have 300 to 400 apartments each, so the mobility is pretty high."

Administrators at other schools in Phoenix cite high mobility, too, saying many people travel to Mexico at the end of summer and don't return to enroll their children until after Labor Day.

But enrollment at Roosevelt Elementary School District in Phoenix, where 8 in 10 students are Hispanic, remains down 1.4 percent after the week that included Labor Day, according to figures from Ken Garland, interim director for support services at Roosevelt.

In Tempe, Ariz., 13,082 schoolchildren were enrolled in kindergarten through Grade 8 as of Day 25 of this school year. That's 416 fewer – or about 3 percent less – than the same time last year.

"We're looking into doing a marketing study to contact families who left us," says Monica Allread, spokeswoman for the Tempe district. "We want to find out why they left and what could we have done differently."

Miriam's report

If anything, the enrollment numbers can be expected to drop further this fall, according to Miriam, a mother of three school-age children. Almost daily, she says, she hears from friends about others – many of whom have lived in Arizona for 15 to 20 years – who've left or are planning to return to Mexico in December, before the new employer sanctions law goes into effect and before the start of the next school semester in Mexico, when parents can again enroll kids there. They are also worried that a neighbor, landlord, or co-worker will call a hot line recently set up by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office to report possible illegal immigrants, she says.

Moreover, says Miriam, people seem more inclined to return to Mexico than to move to other states in the US. She recently visited a trailer park in Queen Creek, a small community on the southern fringe of Phoenix, where residents were packing up to leave. There are 10 to 15 trailers in the park, she says, and the people there – mostly construction workers – all told her they'd had enough of Arizona and were leaving for Mexico.

Declines in Texas and California, too

Some school districts in California and Texas that serve large, mobile Hispanic communities have reported declines in enrollment, too.

In southern California, the Anaheim City School District, the largest of six districts serving the city, saw its enrollment drop 4 percent this year over last, the second consecutive annual decline. The district had seen such a rapid rise in enrollment through the 1990s that its 24 schools had to shift to a year-round program to educate its mostly Latino student body. The enrollment drop allowed the district this year to take 17 schools off the year-round track.

"We've worked with a demographer," says Suzi Brown, director of communications for the Anaheim City School District. "Our birth rates have declined a bit, but it's also people who can't afford to live in southern California. We're transferring a lot [of former students] to Riverside [County and] San Bernardino County, which has less costly housing ... and a lot to Arizona."

In Texas, Harlandale Independent School District in San Antonio has lost nearly 200 students – or 1.3 percent of the total – this year, according to spokesman Pete Barcenez.

"I don't think this is a coincidence," says Joe Vail, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Houston, of the many reports of lower enrollment. "I think people are fleeing the state and local ordinances that have been putting pressure on local immigrant communities."

The anecdotal evidence is that immigrant families are feeling that pressure. Last week, sheriff's deputies in New Mexico's Otero County nabbed several illegal immigrants and then accompanied them to local schools to pick up their children, says Art Ruiloba, communications coordinator for the Gadsden Independent School District in Sunland, N.M.

"Otero County sheriff's deputies ... picked up a handful of parents, brought them to our schools, and the parents asked to remove the kids from school because the parents or legal guardians were being deported," Mr. Ruiloba says. Six children were removed from the schools to go with their parents. Several other parents have phoned in since then, expressing concern that law-enforcement officials will show up the school to remove undocumented children. Some said they weren't bringing their kids to school for the time being, he says.

It's too soon to have numbers indicating what impact this latest removal of children from the schools has had, Ruiloba says, but "there's an impact of some sort."

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