Residents in San Francisco have been leaving the city in droves. The high cost of living and pandemic-era challenges have led many to seek better conditions outside the city. Whether they are concerned about the cost of living, how the government handles COVID-19 measures or the availability of childcare options, more than 50,000 people have left the city since the pandemic began, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The exodus, along with pandemic-related needs, such as social distancing rules, has impacted enrollment in the city’s schools. The San Francisco Unified School District reported a decline of around 4,000 students since 2019, a 7.6 percent decline.
“The past several years have been filled with uncertainty and challenges for families. The pandemic has changed the circumstances of many, and enrollment decline can be seen in many school districts throughout the state. Each story is different — some may be moving away, some may be choosing other schools,” Laura Dudnick, interim communications director for the SFUSD, told the Nichi Bei News in an e-mail statement.
That decline in enrollment, however, has impacted students unevenly throughout the city. For Rosa Parks Elementary School, located in San Francisco’s Japantown and the Western Addition, the decline in prospective incoming kindergarten students threatens to cut the school’s two Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program classes down to one. The school must attract additional students during its open enrollment period, which started July 17, to maintain both classes.
According to Lisa Tsukamoto, a kindergarten teacher at Rosa Parks’ JBBP program, the program had been nearly full or full up until the pandemic. The pandemic, however, drastically reduced enrollment at the school.
“I had 12 on the roster, but really 10 that would show … for distance learning,” she said of the 2020-2021 school year.
Tsukamoto said enrollment had been gradually improving since then. For the 2021-2022 school year, she taught a class of 15 students and the previous school year she taught 18 students, but this year’s enrollment numbers have drastically fallen.
“We were told we would need a minimum of 16 for each class. So that’s 32,” Nanayo Silver, Rosa Parks Elementary School’s secretary, told the Nichi Bei News. The school district said 24 students were enrolled in the program prior to the open enrollment period, meaning at least eight more students must be placed in the program to maintain two classes. If the school does not maintain two classes, one kindergarten teacher will need to find other work within the school district and the school must figure out how to accommodate the 24 students already enrolled at the school. Kindergarten class sizes are limited to 22 students.
Silver worried that cutting the class would cause a domino effect for the school, which cut a kindergarten class last year in a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics pathway class. Rosa Parks features three tracks for students: the JBBP, STEAM and a special education department.
“If we lose another kindergarten, … we’ll be down to two,” she said. “And so that then impacts all the upper grades: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, as that class moves through school.”
That domino effect is, in some ways, also visible through the reduced enrollment of students in preschools. As parents either left or opted to keep their children home, enrollment at preschools have also declined and have not yet recovered to pre-pandemic numbers.
Kumiko Inui, director of ABC Preschool, said her San Francisco school had around 35 students prior to the pandemic, but now teaches around 24 students. While she said enrollment had declined due to outmigration and COVID concerns, she said she also had to decline students as the school implemented social distancing rules that reduced the maximum number of students and also reduced the number of staff.
“Yes, enrollment is indeed down. However, we have fewer teachers too, so it kind of balances out. And for teachers running the classes, they can pay more attention to each student, so that’s been a positive point,” Inui told the Nichi Bei News in Japanese. “But, looking at it from a business standpoint, there is a need to consider it from here on out and go back to previous numbers gradually. But I think things will recover in time.”
One of the most drastic declines, at least for Rosa Parks, however, is the students who normally matriculate from nearby Nihonmachi Little Friends in Japantown. According to Tsukamoto, 10 to 12 students usually come from NLF each year, but far fewer students have enrolled for the coming school year. Tsukamoto said the drop had “never happened before” and is “kind of concerning.”
Kiyomi Takeda said she was sending her daughter to Rosa Parks in light of its strong Japanese language program and proximity to her home in the Japantown and Fillmore neighborhoods, but
she noted many other families opted for other schools based on their priorities.
“I know that many of my daughter’s classmates have older siblings at other schools. Also, many of the families don’t live close to Japantown so they were looking for options closer to their home,” she said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei News. “It did not seem like it was a deliberate decision not to attend RP and more so that they had options that worked better for their family’s needs.”
Cathy Inamasu, executive director of Nihonmachi Little Friends, confirmed that many parents had listed other schools as first choices. While there is nothing inherently wrong with Rosa Parks Elementary, she said the reduced incoming class of kindergartners in the city made it easier for students to get into other schools. Her school also used to have more than 80 students, but is now serving 66 preschoolers due to the “new normal” since the pandemic started.
“Hopefully, things will improve,” Inamasu said. “I think some families are still waiting for the final days before the beginning of the school year to see if they get into their school that they’re waiting for, and then if not, … planning to go into Rosa Parks,”
Silver noted the reduced number of students and the exodus of residents from the city has impacted schools differently throughout the city. She noted that Rosa Parks, which has a more diverse student body located in the Western Addition, has not been as attractive as some of the top schools in the district such as Clarendon Elementary School, located in the Twin Peaks neighborhood. Clarendon Elementary, where Silver volunteered while her child attended the school, also has a JBBP program, which the SFUSD reported had filled both classes of 22 seats and had a waitlist for prospective students.
“I do think that it’s impacting even the most highly-sought schools, because a lot of people were never able to transfer mid-year before to some of those schools before, because their enrollment was very stable and they were always full,” Silver said. “But last year, a lot of families were able to transfer out. So I do think it’s impacting even those schools that are most highly sought after, but their impact is different. … If people hear about a vacancy there, they will apply to get in. And so they’re moving from schools that maybe are not as desirable, which I guess we’re considered.”
Silver said her school has around 360 students enrolled, but had started the last school year with 380 students. She said families either transferred out to other schools or even moved out of the country.
“I know this next school year, I think there were like another two or three families that I just dropped because they’re going back to Japan. I shouldn’t say going ‘back’ to Japan because … these are not the itinerant families who are here just for like two or three years, these were the families who were living here. Like one parent’s American and one parent’s from Japan,” Silver said.
Another issue Takeda mentioned might have hampered Rosa Parks this past year was the school’s lack of a principal. According to Silver, their former principal was out on medical leave, but expressed hope that, Laura Schmidt-Nojima, the incoming principal who is also a former parent of a JBBP alum, along with an assistant principal, will help the school get back on track.
“I am really excited, because she’s got really good energy,” Silver said. “People are feeling very optimistic, very upbeat.”
While Rosa Parks must convince more parents to enroll their children at their school, Silver said she did not want to sound too dire about the situation either.
“I feel like we have this amazing staff at Rosa Parks. And one of the things that’s amazing about Rosa Parks is diversity, not just ethnically, but also socioeconomically,” she said. “We have newcomers to the United States who come to Rosa Parks. We have families who have been … for generations in San Francisco, both African American and Japanese American, and European American.”
For information on how to enroll in SFUSD schools this coming 2023-2024 school year, visit https://www.sfusd.edu/schools/enroll/apply/apply-2023-2024-school-year.
Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the July 20 – Aug. 2, 2023 issue of the Nichi Bei News, the article entitled “Reduced enrollment across the board threatens Rosa Parks Elementary Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program class” erroneously stated that Nanayo Silver was previously employed at the Clarendon Elementary School. She is a former parent of a student there and a parent volunteer. The Nichi Bei News regrets the error. To contact the Nichi Bei Weekly about an error, please e-mail email@example.com, write to P.O. Box 15693, San Francisco, CA 94115 or call (415) 673-1009.
Tomo Hirai is a Shin-Nisei Japanese American lesbian trans woman born in San Francisco and raised in Walnut Creek, Calif., where she continues to reside. She attended the San Francisco Japanese Hoshuko (supplementary school) through high school and graduated from the University of California, Davis with degrees in Communications and Japanese, along with a minor in writing. She serves as a diversity consultant for table top games and comic books in her spare time.