Carmichael’s Starr King K-8 enrollment shrinks as neighborhood students depart

Students walk down a hallway at Starr King K-8 elementary school on May 13. The school is ranked among the least sought-after during this year’s open enrollment.
Students walk down a hallway at Starr King K-8 elementary school on May 13. The school is ranked among the least sought-after during this year’s open enrollment.

Starr King K-8 in Carmichael has a distinction no school wants. It ranked dead last among San Juan Unified schools during open enrollment for the coming fall semester after 175 students within its neighborhood boundary chose other schools.

Parents living within Starr King’s boundaries are confronted with a choice. They can go to Starr King, which in 2012 ranked in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide in the composite API scoring. Or they can apply to one of the nearby campuses that are among the most desired in the district, with API scores in the 70th percentile or higher.

It is the harsh side of open enrollment, one in which applications to enroll elsewhere equaled about a third of Starr King’s student body of nearly 600.

The neighborhood around Starr King is a blend of older, well-kept middle-class homes and, along some of the busier corridors, apartment buildings. Those busy corridors, where families may live short-term, provide a significant share of the school’s enrollment.

This year, Starr King administrators are bent on change. New Principal Roxanne Mitchell, who in recent years guided a failed Twin Rivers Unified campus through reopening and academic turnaround, is forging an upswing in parent and community involvement, say district officials. And district testing to measure academic progress, known as MAP, is showing significant gains this year in reading, she said.

One way to generate family involvement is to hold student performances and campus events, Mitchell said. In January, the school held Family Science Night, drawing about 300 people.

Last week, hundreds of students and parents packed the school auditorium for the spring Tot Rock, where the younger students sang. Throughout the event, the first of two, parents held their phones and cameras aloft to capture their children dancing to the beat of “Rock Around the Clock” and “Splish Splash,” songs from the 1950s.

Marlon Waller, whose son Elizha, 8, sang with his second-grade classmates, was among the smiling parents. He said he is delighted with the school and the dedicated teachers and principals.

“I think Starr King is a great school,” Waller said. “The teachers are hands-on. They try to be in tune with the family instead of just the child.”

A few months ago, parents helped raise funds through a spaghetti feed and silent auction to help support school programs, including music and the library. In the auction, Waller said, his son captured the designation “Principal for a Day.”

“They do everything they can to make sure that the kids that they look after turn out pretty good,” he said. Besides, he said, it would be “too much of a hassle” to send his son to another school.

Some parents from the Starr King attendance zone aren’t convinced. At Mission Avenue Open Elementary on Thursday, several parents said they researched schools or attended orientations at multiple campuses before choosing not to send their children to Starr King. They lauded the parent participation and volunteerism at Mission.

Linda Ford said she lives only a quarter-mile from Starr King but a few miles from Mission school, where her daughter is enrolled in kindergarten. She said she pursued Mission for her children after talking to other families in her neighborhood and evaluating API test scores and other school statistics. At Mission’s parent orientation, she said, she liked what she saw.

Open enrollment gained traction in public education about two decades ago after state legislation eased the way for students to choose schools outside their own neighborhoods. Over time, the process morphed into a competition among schools targeting rapid learners or offering special programs such as language immersion or arts enrichment.

Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer, a former Sacramento City Unified School District trustee, said there are lots of schools like Starr King, where parents choose distant campuses rather than those nearby.

He and his wife enrolled an older son in kindergarten at Bret Harte, only a block from their Curtis Park home. But their efforts to encourage other families in the neighborhood to choose the campus proved disappointing.

“We finally came to the conclusion that what was important was parents who care about the education of their kids rather than where they live,” Schenirer said. “The fundamental issue is a belief in neighborhood schools and how important that is because you’re also trying to build communities around schools.”

In the Starr King neighborhood, parents enrolling their children elsewhere applied mainly to five campuses, all within a few miles: Mission Avenue Open; Del Dayo, which has a strong family identity within its mature neighborhood; Cowan Fundamental, which in 2012 was in the top 10th percentile of API scoring statewide; Mary Deterding, which has an arts focus and a rapid learner program; and Mariemont, which has high parent involvement.

None of those campuses has more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch. The majority of students at each are white.

By comparison, about 87 percent of Starr King students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. About 60 percent of its students are minorities.

Ryan Smith, executive director of the Oakland-based research group The Education Trust-West, said society faces a balancing act. Open enrollment allows parents to choose quality schools for their children. But there is a downside: declining enrollment for schools not chosen.

“When we see a reduction in student enrollment, we see less (per-student funding),” Smith said, “So we’re asking schools to continue the same level of education without the same resources.”

Lynne Morton, a first-grade teacher at Starr King for the last 28 years, said in her early days fewer than a half-dozen schools in the district offered open enrollment. Over time, she said, Starr King’s boundaries grew as other schools closed. More schools began offering open enrollment. And the demographics of Starr King’s attendance area changed, with more students coming from low-income homes.

“It does change your calling as a teacher,” Morton said. “Besides academics, we’re teaching social skills and behavior. We take on the hat of a counselor. We have many different hats.”

Mitchell said she’s she’s not worried that many neighborhood students don’t attend her campus.

The staff and teachers are driven to help students, she said. “So when you look at factors that may cause others to say, ‘Maybe this isn’t the school for me,’ we say: We are glad we (Starr King) are who we are, and we provide our kids with the best education we can.

“We have teachers who want to be here, and they absolutely embrace the kids. My school has children from every culture.”

Steffani Sweetman, who has three children at Starr King, said it’s the cultural diversity that she most appreciates about the school.

“The students get to know different kinds of people, different cultures,” she said. “Our kids need to be learning that.”