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Education

San Diego County Sees Big Drop In English Learner Enrollment

A student participating in a distance learning virtual class during the COVID-19 pandemic in this file photo taken Sept. 2, 2020.
Ross D. Franklin / AP
A student participating in a distance learning virtual class during the COVID-19 pandemic in this file photo taken Sept. 2, 2020.

According to new state data, public school enrollment is down across the state, but the number of English Learner students has dropped even more this school year in both the state and county.

The number of English Learners enrolled in public schools statewide dropped by about 8% this school year, which is the largest drop in the past five years. In San Diego County, the drop was even more dramatic at 12%, according to the data released by the California Department of Education.

San Diego County Sees Big Drop In English Learner Enrollment
Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

Experts say the decline can be largely explained by economic conditions that the pandemic has worsened. Students whose first language isn’t English are more likely to come from low-income families who were hit hard during the pandemic year.

RELATED: San Diego County Public Schools Saw Big Enrollment Drops Due To Pandemic

“There are a lot of folks who are being priced out. Rents are still not affordable or controllable,” said Jorge Cuevas Antillon, the district advisor for curriculum and instruction at the San Diego County Office of Education. “I know there are research pieces out there on affordability in the country showing that our region of the state of the country is one of the most unaffordable for people who are working-class or the working poor.”

English learner enrollment dropped by 12% in the San Diego Unified School District, the data show. But the Chula Vista Elementary School District had the steepest drop among large local districts. Overall enrollment in Chula Vista Elementary dropped by about 3%, while English Learner enrollment dropped by about 19%.

One reason for the big decline in Chula Vista could be that more students have mastered the language and no longer qualify as English learners. But others may have just fallen through the cracks, especially during the pandemic, said Lalaine Perez, the district’s executive director for English Learners.

“This year, not only in our school district but across the nation, the registration process occurred online,” Perez said. “And so there are a lot of different challenges that could impede how we accurately identify those English Learners.”

RELATED: English Learners Are Falling Further Behind In The Virtual Classroom

Educators across the county agree that English learners will need extra attention to recover academically after a year of distance learning.

Since retiring, Rosaría Salinas oversees a scholarship for English Learners who have achieved biliteracy. Salinas said school districts need to see them as assets who enrich not only the student body but also the biliteracy programs that have been growing in popularity in recent years.

“It is imperative that we invest in English Learners because this will strengthen us as a state,” said Salinas, a former director of curriculum at the San Diego County Office of Education. “We will have a population that has resilience and the added advantage of speaking two languages or more.”