Tucson Unified School District is continuing the annual trend of drastic enrollment declines, a survey shows.

The high student loss is nothing new in TUSD. Enrollment has been dropping by about 1,500 students each year for several years.

But TUSD projected that this year that the rate of student losses would level off. However, its closing of 11 schools and the expansion of two local charter schools helped lure students away.

The district has attributed the exodus of students to a decrease in the number of school-age children living within its boundaries, charter schools, the downturn in the economy and a change in immigration policies.

“Parents make decisions for their families based on what is going on in their own lives,” said David Scott, TUSD accountability and research director. “Rarely does it have anything to do with us.”

The district’s new leader, H.T. Sanchez, is not alarmed by the numbers. Rather, he sees it as an opportunity to get a better understanding of what is going on.

Sanchez has ordered a comprehensive demographics study to understand where people are moving and why, the job opportunities available, and other factors.

“No one is in panic mode,” he said.

Sanchez is encouraged by the fact that enrollment at the middle- and high-school levels has increased.

“It shows that our longtime students are happy here and they are staying here,” Sanchez said.

He said he hopes that the decrease at the elementary level can be addressed by making young families aware of what TUSD has to offer and the achievement gains TUSD has made.

Enrollment stable elsewhere

Neighboring school districts have not seen the same drastic enrollment decreases over the years. Most of them have remained relatively stable and some, like Sunnyside and Vail, have gotten bigger.

The only other district in the state larger than TUSD — Mesa — has, however, experienced a similar downward trend.

After TUSD closed 11 schools at the end of last school year, 523 students are not returning to the district. In 2010 when TUSD closed nine schools, 315 students did not return.

While the number of students who left TUSD this year because of the school closures appears to be high, district officials noted that on average more than 400 students left each year in the three years prior.

Charter school growing

Charter schools in both Pima and Maricopa counties are seeing the opposite trend with enrollment continuously increasing each year for the last decade.

There are 54 charter schools within TUSD boundaries serving 11,065 students. That’s about 61 percent of all of the charter school students in Pima County.

So far this year, 959 TUSD students have opted to go to charter schools — a number that is expected to increase to about 2,000 by the time the school year ends, Scott said.

Of those students, some 250 enrolled at either Basis Tucson, which this year added grades K-4, or Academy Del Sol, which opened up a third location hoping to attract some of the students affected by TUSD’s closures.

While the two charter school expansions did take a significant number of students, Scott is convinced that it is a one-time deal. He says that once the schools reach capacity they will only be able to admit kindergartners.

He also does not believe that students were driven to the nationally-recognized Basis by the school closures.

“The Basis expansion impacted high-performing TUSD schools with waiting lists of their own,” Scott said. “These were involved parents who are taking advantage of a new opportunity.

“We don’t offer the Basis program. It’s a competitive environment.”

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

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.