Natomas schools have fastest student growth in region

After surviving a foreclosure wave that left homes vacant and schools struggling to maintain enrollment, Natomas has seen the Sacramento region’s fastest rate of student growth this academic year.

The Natomas Unified School District added 710 students this year, an increase of 6 percent, state figures show.

That growth was led by 158 additional students at Heron School, a K-8 campus with above-average test scores nestled among North Natomas homes built more than a decade ago. Each grade level added students, including 27 more third-graders and 26 more kindergartners, according to state data.

District spokesman Jim Sanders attributed Heron’s sharp growth to the addition of full-day kindergarten and the school’s designation in 2012 as a California Distinguished School – awarded to schools showing widespread academic improvement, particularly among disadvantaged students.

Natomas Unified officials said the bulk of new pupils at its traditional schools are kindergarteners. Two hundred new students are attending kindergarten classes, 50 of them 4-year-olds in transitional kindergarten.

Of the growth, Sanders said, “Some of it is ... natural, the economy coming back and families coming back.”

The district of 12,300 students grew quickly during the housing boom, when scores of young families flocked to newly built homes in Natomas.

But the district’s enrollment stagnated during the recession, which hit Natomas particularly hard. Between 2006 and 2012, about two out of every five homes in the suburban area had received a foreclosure notice. The district itself fell on hard economic times, facing deficit projections so severe that it faced the risk of a state takeover.

Like other neighborhoods, Natomas has since seen a rebound in home prices. The median sales price in the 95835 ZIP code where Heron School sits has climbed 64.5 percent since its September 2011 trough, according to real estate information service DataQuick.

District leaders added programs and classes popular with families. They started International Baccalaureate preparatory programs at H. Allen Hight Elementary and Natomas Middle School, increased career technical education offerings, started an academy at Inderkum High School that allows students to take college classes and converted all kindergarten classes to full-day sessions.

“We are doing a nice job of promoting a lot of the positive things going on in Natomas Unified,” said Leslie Sargent, principal at Two Rivers Elementary, which gained 55 students this year. “I think that that message is getting out there and we are seeing changes and positives things going on in our schools.”

While enrollment stagnated during the recession, charter schools grew in popularity. This year, 30 percent of the Natomas district’s students attend free public charter schools, according to state data.

“We knew they (charter schools) were growing and we needed to do something,” Sanders said. Natomas Unified leaders decided to take “action to aggressively attack declining enrollment.”

Charter schools located in the district also are continuing to grow. Westlake Charter Middle School gained 104 students last year when it added eighth grade, and district-operated charter Leroy Greene added 126 when it added ninth grade.

“We are a growing charter,” said Westlake Charter Executive Director Katie Burwinkel. “Each year, we have expanded or added a grade level.”

The school, which has elementary and middle school campuses, focuses on global awareness. The elementary school boasts an API of 913, while the middle school scored 839, both above the state goal of 800. There are 400 students on its waiting list, according to Burwinkel.

The district is leveraging the popularity of Leroy Greene Academy to help draw students to Two Rivers Elementary, its feeder school. The district offers students at Two Rivers priority enrollment at the charter middle school.

“Before, people started to scatter after fourth grade,” Sargent said. “So we were strategic.”

Sargent and her staff also added after-school enrichment programs like gardening, Japanese, Spanish and cooking to retain students. Teachers stepped up collaboration to ensure floundering students received extra help and those who excelled had extra challenges, Sargent said.

“We’ve worked really hard to figure what our community wanted and to try to fill those needs,” Sargent said.