The Long Beach Unified School District got some good news to start the school year, as kindergarten enrollment has ticked up for the first time in several years.

The district has been in declining enrollment for almost two decades since 2003-04, a reality that led the LBUSD Board of Education to set aside $400 million in reserves to bolster against potential future layoffs at the city’s largest employer.

But with the introduction of full-day kindergarten programs and family-friendly changes to daycare costs, this year is bucking that trend for the district. The LBUSD has seen a 2% increase in transitional kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment. District projections at the end of last year showed an expected continued trend of 3% decreases each year going forward. The modest increase represents a 5% turnaround from the projected numbers.

LBUSD assistant superintendent over elementary schools Brian Moskovitz said the enrollment bump has been welcome good news as the district comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s definitely gratifying,” he said. “It represents a ton of hard work behind the scenes by staff and other leaders, and for our teachers who are doing the hard work every day.”

Last year’s TK/K enrollment in the LBUSD was 5,283, a number district projections assumed would drop another 3% this year. Instead it rose by 2% to 5,401, a number that continues to climb each week as families enroll students. Moskovitz said he expects the final number could crest over 5,500.

It’s the biggest percentage increase the district has seen at its introductory grade level in close to two decades.

“Enrollment is critical to our district to receive the funding that we need to meet the needs of our students,” said Moskovitz. “It also recognizes a robust community when we have a lot of students.”

The public education enrollment decline is a statewide issue, with K-12 enrollment plunging across California last year. The LAUSD is still seeing early education enrollment declines, suggesting that the LBUSD is perhaps handling a difficult stretch better than its larger neighbor. In Long Beach and statewide, the enrollment decline has been blamed on a variety of factors, including lowering birth rates and a lack of affordable housing for families.

The LBUSD publicized its new full-day kindergarten program widely after it was voted on in May, including mailers that were sent to families across the city. Moskovitz suspects that program, along with a new more affordable daycare structure, are responsible for the modest enrollment gains.

“Kids Club” daycare programs at the district’s elementary schools have previously charged by the hour for before-and-after school care. This year the district is utilizing some of its COVID-19 relief funds to make Kids Club programs cost-free for a big chunk of its families, and capping the cost at $250 monthly per child for families over the income threshold.

“It’s making it even more economically viable for our families,” said Moskovitz. “Our families were excited about that change—it’s a huge win for them and for our community. A lot of families are saving $700 or $800 a month.”

Moskovitz also said that the district re-outfitted all of its kindergarten classes with new furniture and equipment to help modernize the classes and to allow teachers to prepare a full-day curriculum. Overall, he said he was happy to see the full-day kindergarten program the community had been requesting be so well-received by parents bringing their kids to LBUSD schools this year.

“Kindergarten is obviously an important grade level because it then matriculates up,” he said. “We were hoping for a reduction in the decline (with the new programs) but in this case it actually went up, which is great news.”