Bay Area school enrollment has plummeted. So why has student population spiked in this East Bay city?
For 18-year-old Grace Holmes, there’s one thing that speaks to the population explosion in her hometown more than anything else: the stairwells at her high school in Dublin.
“I’m stepping, then I’m pausing, then I’m waiting five seconds, then I’m stepping again,” said Holmes, a senior at Dublin High. “It’s just crazy to see that many kids.”
Over the past five years, 85% of school districts in the Bay Area registered a drop in enrollment, with some losing nearly a third of their students. It’s a trend largely driven by falling birth rates, a rise in homeschooling, and a steady stream of people leaving the state.
But in Dublin, both the schools and the city have seen the exact opposite: Its student population has tripled since 2019. Dublin Unified is one of less than 15% of all Bay Area school districts that have grown its enrollment over the last five years — and only one of six districts to have grown with over 5,000 students.
In the decade between 2010 and 2020, Dublin’s population jumped by 60%, a result of more than 8,000 new homes popping up during that time. Meanwhile, other cities in the East Bay reported population increases one third or less of Dublin’s, and the population of many — such as nearby Danville — barely rose at all.
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“It seems like we can’t build schools fast enough,” said Erik Bertelson, the music director at Wells Middle School. “Everyone’s moving to Dublin.”
When Bertelson started teaching at Wells, he was just 23 years old. Forty-four years later, he’s watched as the city around the school transformed from a town “full of cows and ranches” to one with layer upon layer of new housing developments. With those new houses have come new families, and with those families have come students and new schools.
The school district is racing to keep up.
Over the last two decades, Dublin Unified has built five new elementary schools and is upgrading three others. They’ve expanded a middle school and a high school and begun planning for a new K-8 campus. A second high school, Emerald, is nearly finished and slated to open its doors next January. That’s all been paid for by four bond measures totaling $850 million, on top of three additional parcel taxes. Each of those bonds, which increased property taxes on Dublin residents, were passed with 57-73% of the vote, depending on the year.
Though Emerald is one of just three new non-charter high schools to be built over the last 10 years, in other parts of the region, districts such as Fremont Unified, West Contra Costa Unified and Pleasanton Unified have used bond measures to rebuild older schools or expand and modernize classrooms, such as Richmond’s De Anza and Pleasanton’s Amador Valley high schools.
“It’s night and day in terms of the pressure of always worrying about the shoe dropping,” said Chris Funk, who led East Side Union High School District in San Jose — a district whose student population has dropped 7% since 2016 — before becoming superintendent of Dublin Unified. “Most districts in California have declining enrollment, which means that elephant is always in the room: If the state reduces funding and you have declining enrollment, it’s a double whammy.”
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That’s a battle familiar to districts across the Bay Area. In Oakland, for example, dwindling student populations (and with that, state funding) has led to not only multiple school closures but a struggle to find dollars to provide the best educational experience for students at the campuses that remain open.
Throughout the Dublin district’s expansion, students’ test scores have steadily increased, fueling a rush of young families to the city. Today, Dublin students surpass the achievement levels in neighboring San Ramon Valley and Pleasanton schools — a magnet that, for years, has spurred families to places such as Palo Alto or Fremont.
On top of that, it takes under an hour to commute from San Francisco by car and public transport and, according to families, feels “just far enough” from the area’s major metro areas. Crime rates in Dublin are more than 60% lower than Hayward, 70% lower than San Francisco and nearly 80% lower than Oakland — another lure for families seeking safer neighborhoods.
One of those families is the Lapierres. Destiny, age 14, transferred to Dublin High in early March when the family moved from San Francisco, and she’s been settling in pretty well for a transfer student. There are “tons of girls” from Oakland and San Francisco, she said.
“Everything is so pretty out here, and so green,” said Destiny. “It feels like nothing could go wrong.”
But with the entire city sharing one public high school, the overcrowding makes it a challenge to navigate to class on time. And before the high school’s newest building opened in 2019, up to three teachers could be sharing a classroom, rotating out between periods.
At Dublin High, 18 portable classrooms now sit beside the sports fields to accommodate the growth. Sixty-nine more portables have been placed on other school campuses around the district, helping schools accommodate rising class sizes.
When class is in session, Dublin High feels serene, and almost quiet. But every time the bell rings to announce the end of a lesson, the 44-acre campus swells with students — all 3,500 of them.
The district has also been hunting for teachers to accommodate their rising student body. Over the past eight years, Dublin High has gone from hiring 10 new teachers a year to 20 or 30, said Dublin High Principal Maureen Byrne — a difficult feat in a state with an ongoing teacher shortage.
Not all residents are enthused about the situation. Anti-development groups have demanded an end to the city’s steady growth, with one petition circulating last year attracting nearly 1,000 signatures. “Let us first get the schools in place before we dump more students into them,” one petition signer commented.
Despite that, tension has eased the closer they get to opening up Emerald High, according to Shazia Nomani, a mother of two and the president of the Dublin High parent teacher association. Located on the east side of the city, Emerald will make it much easier for many students to get to school and their classrooms, she said, especially because East Dublin is the focal point of the city’s new growth.
“Dublin High is doing amazing things, but there’s a saturation point,” said Nomani. “The city keeps building houses, and the growth hasn’t stopped.”