Colorado school enrollment drops for the first time in 30 years due to COVID-19

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The number of students attending Colorado’s public schools fell by nearly 30,000 this fall, the first statewide drop in enrollment in more than 30 years as families turn to education at home and other options during the COVID-19 pandemic.

K-12 enrollment in the current school year totaled 883,281, down 3.3%, or 29,942 students, from the previous year, according to preliminary figures from enrollment released Tuesday by the Colorado Department of Education.

Public schools – which will suffer budget losses due to per-student funding losses – saw the largest declines in preschool and kindergarten enrollment, which fell 23.3% and 9.1% respectively, reported the agency.

Although the statewide increase in enrollment has been gradual in recent years, the last time it fell was in 1988, according to the Department of Education.

The state’s largest districts were the hardest hit, with some seeing declines well above the state average. Enrollment in District 11 of Colorado Springs fell 8.2%, while Boulder Valley fell 5.6% and Adams 12 Five Star Schools fell 5.2%. Denver Public Schools hit the average with a 3.3% drop in student numbers.

Conversely, the number of homeschooled children doubled to 15,773, the state reported. That accounts for some of the students leaving public institutions, said Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Department for Education.

Okes said a sharp drop in enrollment from younger students is also a big factor in the overall decline. Statewide, the Department of Education estimates that about 27,609 fewer preschoolers through fifth graders are enrolled this year, with the largest declines among preschoolers (down 8,009 students) and kindergarten children (down 5,798).

“There was a term that was new to me – a redshirt kindergartener. Like a redshirt freshman, they’re delayed to start preschool or kindergarten, Okes said. We see a lot of this, parents delaying their children’s entry to school.”

Yet this leaves many students missing. The state does not collect private school enrollment data, and Okes said many children may transfer to private or out-of-state institutions. Some student-athletes have moved at the start of the semester in anticipation of the postponement or cancellation of their sports seasons.

Colorado’s trends mirror others across the United States. Registrations in Missouri and North Carolina, for example, are down 3% to 5%, according to local reports. In public schools in New York, the nation’s largest district, 31,000 fewer students — a 3.4% drop — are enrolled this year, according to Chalkbeat. And in a survey of more than 60 districts, NPR found that average kindergarten enrollment was down 16%.

Each October, the state Department of Education counts the number of students attending public schools and allocates funds per student. The average allocation to schools per student for the 2020-2021 school year is $7,985. But when the kids go to another school or home school, the money goes too.

“We did our best”

Brian Smothers has described himself as the “prototypical Denver liberal parent who really supported public education and neighborhood schools”. The pandemic helped him change his mind about Denver public schools, prompting him to pull his preschooler and middle schooler from the district.

Smothers said district communications didn’t make him or his wife feel safe in his 4-year-old’s preschool class this fall.

“They couldn’t convince me it was safe, and they didn’t really convince me that they thought it was safe,” Smothers said. “I felt like they were trying to sell me something that wasn’t authentic. It sounded more like a marketing campaign than an attempt at honest communication.

After researching his school’s venting practices and speaking with DPS’ principal and director of early childhood education, Smothers said he and his wife decided his daughter would drop out of public school and do home learning activities.

“She’s doing better than the district lesson plans said she should be doing. She’s starting to read and write,” said Smothers, who also transferred her 11-year-old son mid-semester to an online charter school.

Denverite Nic Jordan enrolled her 7-year-old daughter in Denver Public Schools this fall, but became frustrated with her sophomore’s online learning.

“It was just harder for her,” said Jordan, a stay-at-home mom who was able to sit with her daughter during virtual learning. “She would be stressed. I would be stressed. We have done our best.

After some DPS students were welcomed back into in-person learning, Jordan and her family opted to keep their daughter away. Jordan said the district dropped the ball with students who stayed virtual and her daughter didn’t seem to learn and ended up with teachers she didn’t know. In November, they turned to homeschooling using the BookShark program.

“It went so much better,” Jordan said. “I can modify the curriculum to whatever would suit him best. We have added French online via Rosetta Stone. She is able to do more football and horse riding. I do crafts with her. His behavior is better. I’m definitely less stressed.

“We want all students to succeed”

Douglas County School District spokesperson Paula Hans said the state’s data was inaccurate for the district, noting that the loss of 1,390 DSCD students was due to the closure of Hope Online Elementary and the the transition of the Ascent charter school out of the district.

“Today’s enrollment news is further proof that this is a challenging time in education for all school districts, including the Douglas County School District,” Hans said in a statement. “While other school districts in Colorado have seen enrollment declines greater than our 4.4% decline, we remain committed to serving all of our students and hopefully welcoming many of these students soon. Losing a student in the midst of a pandemic, while unsurprising, is an incredible concern, as we want all students to be successful, regardless of the path they choose.

More than 32,300 students enrolled in online education programs across Colorado, a 44% increase from 2019. This number includes students enrolled in state-designated online schools (multi -district or single-district) and single-district online programs. This does not include students who remain enrolled in their traditional school, but learn 100% remotely, the education department said.

Among racial and ethnic groups, enrollment declined almost everywhere.

White students, the largest group, saw the largest decline, down 19,721 students, or 4.1%, to 463,330. Hispanic or Latino enrollment fell 2.6% to 301,887, while Black or African American registrations fell 2.7% to 40,424, Asian registrations fell 2.7% to 28,425, and Native American and Alaska Native registrations fell 5 .8% to 5,849.

Only enrollment among Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders and students who identify as two or more races increased, up 0.8% to 2,453 students and 0.3% to 40,913 students, respectively .

Enrollment also declined among English language learners, special education students, and gifted and talented students.

Typically, registration counts are not released until January; however, the state made an exception this year due to the unique circumstances of the pandemic. Final results are expected to be confirmed by mid-January, education officials said.

Colorado’s 10 largest districts saw the most dramatic year-over-year declines:

  • Denver Public Schools enrolled 89,061 students, down 3.3% or 3,051 students
  • Jeffco Public Schools enrolled 80,088 students, down 4.7% or 3,960 students
  • Douglas County School District enrolled 62,979 students, down 6.4% or 4,326 students
  • Cherry Creek School District enrolled 53,167 students, down 3.6% or 2,005 students
  • Aurora Public Schools enrolled 37,907 students, down 5.5% or 2,181 students
  • Adams 12 Five Star Schools enrolled 36,654 students, down 5.2% or 2,053 students
  • St. Vrain Valley School District enrolled 31,312 students, down 4.7% or 1,543 students
  • Boulder Valley School District enrolled 29,240 students, down 5.6% or 1,760 students
  • Poudre School District enrolled 29,417 students, down 4.4% or 1,337 students
  • Colorado Springs District 11 enrolled 23,885 students, down 8.2% or 2,155 students
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