When Cheryl Kolb was growing up in Quincy, a quaint gold rush town in the Northern Sierra, children spent their days exploring the forests, swimming in the Feather River and having milkshakes at the Polka Dot.

Now those trails and swimming holes are much quieter. Quincy High School, the largest high school in Plumas County, had just 301 students last year in grades 7 through 12, less than half its enrollment when Kolb was a student there in the 1980s.

“It’s been pretty hard to watch all these families leave because I love this place,” said Kolb, who has lived in Quincy most of his life and raised his three children there. “I would rather stay here forever, but I guess if there was another disaster, another big fire, I would have to consider leaving as well.”

Even though the overall population of rural Northern California has remained stable or even increased over the past two decades, the number of children enrolled in public schools such as those in Quincy has declined. From the Pacific coast to the interior mountains and valleys, dozens of schools have seen a steep drop in enrollment.

Faced with voracious wildfires that strike nearly every year, unstable local economies and an ever-increasing cost of living, families are fleeing to other counties and states.

Charter schools have siphoned off thousands of students, and as the pandemic continues, more families are choosing to homeschool their children rather than subjecting them to mask and vaccine mandates. .

It left schools in towns like Quincy and Dunsmuir and Alturas with empty classrooms and tough choices. Since California school funding is based on attendance, rural schools receive less money each year as enrollment declines.

Cheryl Kolb at Salt Pond in eastern Plumas County. (Photo: Courtesy of Cheryl Kolb)

This forces them to lay off staff, a painful process in towns where jobs are scarce and everyone knows each other, or cut popular amenities like after-school programs and science labs. Closing schools is rarely an option because the district may have only one school serving a large geographic area.

All of these factors combine to put even more pressure on rural districts, often resulting in budget cuts that make schools even less attractive to potential families. But the situation is not new, said Tim Taylor, executive director of the Small School Districts’ Association.

“Dwindling enrollment has been a challenge in rural areas for decades. Now that LA Unified has a drop in enrollment, everyone’s saying, wow, that’s really a problem,” Taylor said. “What we do know is that it’s a heavy load and the pressure is on the superintendent.”

Across the state, enrollment had been steady for the past decade, until plummeting during the pandemic, prompting the state on Wednesday to form a task force to study its origins. . But in many rural parts of Northern California, enrollment has been declining for at least two decades. Since 1999-20, schools in rural northern state have lost 5.02% of their enrollment. Some have lost much more.

Some rural districts in the region have seen enrollment drop by more than 60% over the past 20 years. Although they all face the same challenges, each school has its own unique story and reasons for declining enrollment. The Golden Feather Elementary District in Butte County, where enrollment has fallen 76% over the past 20 years, was ravaged by the Camp Fire in 2018, only to be threatened again by the Dixie Fire in 2021.

Orick, in the northern redwoods of Humboldt County, saw its population plummet as its six sawmills closed, one by one, leaving the K-8 Orick School with just 21 students last year. In the early 1990s, the school in Orick had nearly 80 students. Schools in some counties, such as Trinity, Humboldt and Mendocino, have seen attendance fluctuate based on the vagaries of the cannabis industry, which is currently in decline.

Sevastopol, in Sonoma County, has not been decimated by wildfires or unemployment. But, set amid the bucolic apple orchards and vineyards of North Bay, it has been subject to a spike in the cost of living. The average home price last month was $1.3 million, according to Realtor.com, and rents jumped more than 50% last year. It is not uncommon for families to pay more than $3,000 a month to rent a small house – a major hurdle in a predominantly agricultural region.

Sonoma County also has a plethora of charter and private schools, and families can easily send their children to schools in districts other than the one in which they reside. The result is that Sebastopol Union School District must struggle to attract and retain students, which is not always easy in a rapidly changing field. In 2000, the K-eight district had over 1,200 students. It is now running at 400.

“It’s a depressing situation. The smaller you are, the fewer options you have, so it’s exponential,” Superintendent Linda Irving said. “I try to bring together the board, the unions and the community. Who helps.”

In Sevastopol, dwindling enrollment means Irving must think of creative ways to attract new students. Using a small budget for marketing, she printed brochures for local realtors to give to new families and updated the district’s website. It has also used one-time money to fund ongoing services such as science, technology, engineering and math programs — not an ideal choice but necessary to compete with better-funded schools.

Rio Dell Elementary, a TK-eight district in Humboldt County, has been hit hard by Covid — and Covid regulations, Superintendent Angela Johnson said. The area has the highest Covid rate in the county, according to the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, but school closures, mask mandates and vaccine requirements have also caused challenges. havoc, leading many frustrated families to withdraw their children from local audiences. school and homeschooling.

Often, when students return to school, they fall behind their classmates academically and need extra help to catch up, placing an additional burden on the 290 students, mostly from the district low-income, Johnson said. She dreads any further Covid requirements from Sacramento.

“We are watching closely to see what the legislature does with vaccine mandates. This is going to be crucial in rural communities like ours,” she said.

Enrollment at Happy Valley Union Elementary, near Redding, hasn’t dropped as much as at other rural schools. The K-eight District in the Upper Sacramento Valley had just 34% fewer students last year than 20 years ago, compared to the estimated 50% decline that many districts have suffered . But attendance has been a challenge. At the start of the school year, about 13% of students were absent daily, largely due to Covid restrictions which led to families keeping their children at home, Superintendent Shelly Craig said.

Nonetheless, Craig is grateful for the supportive community of Happy Valley, an unincorporated area of ​​Shasta County surrounded by farms and ranches.

“Our schools are the center of our close-knit community. Several students are second and third generation students. Until last year when several teachers and staff retired, the majority of our teachers had served in the community for decades,” said Craig. “Our students and staff are part of a school family.”

This strong sense of community is an asset that small towns can offer families and potential young people looking to settle down, said Ann Schulte, civic engagement manager at Chico State University and professor of education who works closely with rural districts.

But if these cities want families and young people to stay, they need to be more in tune with what young people want.

“A lot of people who grew up in small towns want to go back there, settle down there and raise kids,” she said. “But there must be more than their grandparents. There must be “a good cup of coffee and a place to listen to music”. There must be cultural and economic opportunities.

In response to declining enrollment and other issues facing rural youth, school leaders in Shasta, Tehama, Siskiyou, Modoc, and Trinity counties, with assistance from the McConnell Foundation, launched a organization called North State Together, which brings together schools, local businesses, families, tribal groups and others to strengthen local schools and improve student outcomes.

Schulte is optimistic that these towns will revitalize and that more families will decide to stay and raise their children there.

“People are suddenly paying attention to what’s going on in rural areas and they realize that these are beautiful, underrated places with a lot to offer,” she said.

In Plumas County, longtime Quincy resident Kolb hopes her community will be spared another disaster like the Dixie Fire, which roared dangerously near Quincy last summer, and that life will return to normal after the pandemic. Ultimately, she says, Quincy and towns like it are wonderful places to grow up, settle and raise children.

“I loved growing up here. It sure was fun. Our parents never knew where we were, and that was OK,” said Kolb, who works at the Quincy Chamber of Commerce. “It was a great place. It’s always like that.