More than 25,000 students living in the Tucson Unified School District have opted to go to charter schools or attend classes in surrounding school districts instead.

The numbers reflect a continuing slide in the number of TUSD families willing to send their kids to TUSD schools.

The revelation comes from a $32,000 demographic study commissioned by TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, who noted that serious discussions about the district’s future need to be had.

A little more than a decade ago, TUSD attracted 80 percent of the children living within its boundaries. Today, about 66 percent of the more than 74,000 school-age children living in the district go to school there. TUSD currently has slightly less than 49,000 students enrolled.

What’s worse, that enrollment rate is expected to fall to 60 percent over the next 10 years.

In addition to anticipating a continued exodus of students, the analysis found the district lacks schools in parts of town where growth is projected while maintaining an abundance of schools in areas that are stagnant.

“At some point we have to have a conversation about what’s the right size of an elementary school, of a middle school, of a high school, of a K-8 school,” Sanchez said. “Because as we’ve reviewed our information, some of the more successful K-8 charter schools are larger, not smaller.”

Those charter schools, Sanchez said, are serving 600 to 800 students, compared to TUSD neighborhood schools with 200 to 400 children.

“Historically, we looked at that and said everyone likes small schools but when you take a look at the demographic data, where we have these small schools, the people are opting out of the small schools for the larger charter schools,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez called for the demographic analysis after arriving in Tucson last year, saying the district needed an impartial, third-party look at where it is losing students and where there is growth.

The study found growth on the southwest side due to new home construction and generally larger families.

But it said challenges arise in the northwest, northeast and east sides of the district, which are bordered by Vail, Amphitheater, Catalina Foothills and Tanque Verde school districts — areas where competition and a higher concentration of childless households has resulted in under-enrolled schools.

To be competitive, TUSD should consider expanding in the southwest, said Rick Brammer, a partner at Applied Economics, which conducted the study.

“Enrollment gains in the southwest part of the district may require additional facilities, even as space remains unused in other areas,” Brammer said. If TUSD does not move in that direction, he said, charter schools will.

In evaluating facility usage and condition, the study rated about half of TUSD’s campuses “middle of the road,” 29 percent are in need of help and 18 percent in fantastic condition. None of the district’s high schools were identified as being in the best shape.

And in terms of school size, 37 percent of sites are considered to have an ideal number of students for their size, 17 percent are at or above capacity and nearly half under-used.

Charter schools growing

In the past, district officials generally blamed the annual student shrinkage on a decrease in school-age children. But the study found TUSD enrollment has declined much faster than its population of kids.

In the decade between the 2000-2001 and 2010-2011 school years, the school-age population decreased by 3 percent but TUSD’s enrollment fell 14 percent. Meanwhile, enrollment elsewhere increased by 46 percent — a gain that is almost entirely driven by charter schools, Brammer said.

Even private and parochial schools have struggled, because open enrollment between school districts and the proliferation of charter schools offer an alternative option for free, Brammer added.

“Increasing open enrollment — and especially the introduction and proliferation of public charter schools — has impacted the in-district capture rates for public school districts,” the demographic study found. “Open enrollment causes a shifting of students between districts, with gains and losses offsetting each other to varying degrees, but charter schools only subtract from districts.”

Last school year, there were 58 charter schools within TUSD boundaries with a total of 11,500 K-12 students. Over the last five years, enrollment at those schools has risen by more than 1,900 students, going up an average of 480 students per year.

For TUSD Governing Board member Michael Hicks, the fact that charter schools appeal to so many students means TUSD needs to do something differently.

“Our main focus should be getting the kids back into TUSD,” said Hicks, who has long been concerned about enrollment and school closures on the east side.

Middle schools hit hard

Enrollment dropped at all grade levels, but losses were more pronounced in the sixth to eighth grades — an area the district has sought to improve as many parents have said they were taking their kids out of TUSD schools to attend higher-performing middle schools.

For grades K-8, TUSD attracts a higher percentage of students in the south-central portion of the district, but has trouble on the northwest, northeast and east sides.

The opposite is true for high school students, with the enrollment rate higher in the eastern part of the district, likely because TUSD high schools in that area are fairly well regarded, Brammer said. The central area has also remained attractive, possibly due to Tucson High Magnet School.

The rate on the southwest side, however, is far lower, likely due to older students leaving school altogether.

The study also analyzed projected losses and growth for specific sites at the elementary, middle school and high school levels.

Overall, elementary school enrollment is expected to be relatively stable over the next 10 years. But on a school-by-school basis, there are wide variations.

Of the 59 K-5 schools, only 19 are projected to have positive growth ranging from less than 5 percent to more than 10 percent over the coming decade. Most of the declining schools are projected to lose 4 to 13 percent of their enrollment, with the hardest-hit being Roberts-Naylor, which faces a projected 22 percent decline in its elementary grades.

Overall, middle-school enrollment is projected to decline by about 9 percent over the next 10 years.

Significant declines in enrollment —100 students or more — are expected at Gridley, Secrist, Pistor and Magee middle schools, with most of the losses occurring in the next five years. The remaining middle schools are projected to lose 3 to 11 percent, with the exception of Roberts-Naylor which is expected to grow by 10 percent over 10 years in its middle school grades, despite significant declines in the lower grades.

At the high school level, Tucson High has the highest enrollment at 3,225 students, but it is projected to shrink by about 110 students over the next 10 years. At the same time, Sabino and Sahuaro — and, to a lesser extent, Santa Rita — are projected to see significant declines in the next five years — 200 to 600 students each — and then remain fairly stable over the next five years.

Only Cholla and Pueblo, on the south and southwest sides, are projected to have enrollment growth, primarily concentrated in the first five years. Catalina and Palo Verde are expected to remain stable throughout the 10-year projection period.

Tucson is not alone

While the results of the demographic analysis are somewhat grim, TUSD is not alone in the struggle against charter schools, said Brammer. He noted that the largest school district in the state — Mesa — also has an attraction rate in the 60 percent range.

“You’re not radically different in that regard,” Brammer told the TUSD Governing Board. “Charters are not real adventurous. They like to go into areas that are already established and have lots of kids, and if those kids are going to schools that aren’t getting good grades, they’re even better targets.”

The future of the district is based on public choice, Brammer said.

“You could do something really extraordinary and (enrollment) could go back up,” Brammer said. “It’s not like it’s destined to go down, it’s going down by public choice.”

Sanchez said the analysis will position the district to make educated decisions on boundaries and facilities — decisions, he said, “that will be not driven by a conversation or aspirations, but rather by numbers and patterns and projections, which is what we should be doing.”

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.