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Reversing long-term trend, school enrollment down in American Canyon

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Donaldson Way Elementary School parents walking kids

Parents escort and drop off their children at Donaldson Way Elementary School, which has experienced its first enrollment decline in years.

AMERICAN CANYON — Declining enrollment in the Napa Valley Unified School District is no longer just a city of Napa problem. American Canyon, too, is experiencing a drop in students for the first time after nearly two decades of growth.

Nearly all of American Canyon’s public schools are showing declines in their student populations compared to the same time last year, according to NVUSD’s enrollment report for April.

Officials say rising home prices are making it difficult for some families to move to American Canyon, whose schools had grown steadily as a result of new developments, such as Vintage Ranch, producing homes that were more affordable than those in other Bay Area communities.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen a drop in enrollment in American Canyon” in at least 15 years, said Superintendent Patrick Sweeney.

He said rising home values are driving some people out of the market in American Canyon, which has long been a key source for affordable single-family housing in Napa County.

But with the average home in the city now selling for half a million dollars, “young families can’t afford to live there,” said Sweeney.

School administrators in American Canyon agree that the cost of buying a house may have changed some parents’ minds about moving to Napa County’s second largest community.

“A family with children is going to have a hard time buying a home here,” said Marilyn Abelon, principal of Donaldson Way Elementary School, which has experienced the largest decline so far among American Canyon schools.

The April enrollment report showed Donaldson Way Elementary lost 42 students compared to last year, going from 646 to 604.

American Canyon’s other two elementary schools, and its high school, also have lost students.

Canyon Oaks Elementary — which for years had more students than it could handle, forcing some of them to attend Donaldson Way Elementary — lost 23 students. Its April enrollment was 679, down from 702 in 2015-2016, marking the first time Canyon Oaks’ student population dipped below 700 in the last five years.

Napa Junction Elementary School lost 20 students, while American Canyon High School lost 25.

The only school to see its population increase was American Canyon Middle School, which went up by 24 students compared to 2016.

American Canyon home values have increased 45 percent during the previous five years, according to real estate broker David Barker with Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate Wine Country Group.

That upward trend continued during the first quarter of 2017, Barker reported, with the average sale price of both newer and older homes soaring more than 13 percent above 2016 levels.

The average sale price of newer homes was $603,000, while the older homes average sale price was $406,917, according to Barker.

Just as housing may be impacting student enrollment, the drop in the number of pupils may affect school budgeting in American Canyon, said Sweeney and Abelon.

“It means we have to starting planning for fewer kindergartners and first graders,” Sweeney said.

Abelon said her school will have fewer teachers next year, a marked turnaround from years of adding instructors.

“We’ve been increasing staff every year, always hiring more teachers,” said Abelon. “But for next year it’s going to be different.”

She said Donaldson Way Elementary plans to have 21 teachers, down from 23 this year.

Overall, American Canyon schools have lost 86 students compared to April of last year. That total represented 34 percent of the enrollment decline in 2016-2017 for NVUSD, which dropped by 255 students.

The school district has experienced shrinking school populations for the past two years, most of which had occurred at campuses in the city of Napa.

NVUSD’s longtime demographic consultants, Jack Schreder & Associates, reported in January the district will continue to lose students for years to come, possibly as many as 1,350 by 2026-27.

Consultant Jamie Iseman said the enrollment declines were “speeding up” because of “increasing housing prices and rents” in the Napa Valley.

“Napa County is one of the least affordable counties in the country,” said Iseman, who added many families with children “have gotten pushed out” of the local housing market.

While housing in the district is cheaper than in many parts of the Bay Area, local wages are also lower, creating a large affordability disparity.

Schreder & Associates’ 2017 annual report for NVUSD projected American Canyon’s schools will keep dropping in enrollment for the remainder of this decade.

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