COVID, birth rates affect Colorado public school enrollment

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DENVER (AP) — Student enrollment continued to decline in Colorado’s public schools, with the state having about 1,200 fewer K-12 students this fall than last year, when enrollment for kindergarten through high school dropped by about 30,000 students.

State officials have largely attributed last year’s drop in enrollment — which was the first of its kind reported in more than 30 years — to pandemic-driven parental decisions. Many have delayed enrolling children in preschool and kindergarten while other families have shifted to homeschooling or online education programs. And the Colorado Department of Education, which released enrollment numbers Wednesday from an October tally, expected enrollment numbers to rise again in the next few years.

But the drop in the number of K-12 students highlights an underlying problem that has nothing to do with the pandemic: falling birth rates.

The drop in student numbers this year isn’t some kind of “COVID gale,” said Brian Eschbacher, a Denver-based independent education consultant who previously served as executive director of planning and enrollment for schools. Denver public. Falling birth rates are having a ripple effect on K-12 enrollment, with education being “the first government institution that’s going to feel the effects of a country in decline,” Eschbacher said.

“It’s absolutely there and it’s not going to get better and our school systems don’t know how to deal with it,” he said.

The falling numbers could spell financial trouble for some school districts, as district budgets are largely determined by student numbers.

“The reality is that fewer kids equals less funding in many cases,” said Kate Bartlett, executive director of school district operations for the state Department of Education.

In fiscal year 2021, Colorado recorded 61,970 births, down about 9,000 from 2007, a peak year that saw 70,777 births, according to state demographer Elizabeth Garner. The decrease comes even though Colorado has more women of childbearing age, Garner said.

Colorado districts in metropolitan, suburban and rural communities saw declining enrollment, as did schools in cities and towns of all sizes across the country, Eschbacher said.

The state, which measures student enrollment in 178 school districts annually, counted 855,482 K-12 students, down 1,174 students from fall 2020. DPS, the most Colorado’s largest school district, had about 84,200 K-12 students, up from 85,400 students last year.

DPS was already seeing enrollment decline, first at the elementary school level, which has led to lower college enrollment “over the past two years,” said Liz Mendez, executive director of enrollment and campus planning for the district.

“We were already seeing a decline in our system due to dynamic changes in population,” Mendez said, citing declining birth rates.

Soaring home prices in Denver are also contributing to declining listings in the district, she added.

“A lot of families have moved out of the Denver border because they can’t afford housing anymore,” Mendez said.

DPS officials predict that declining birth rates will continue to drive down enrollment in the future.

Asked about declining K-12 enrollment, Bartlett of the state Department of Education pointed to increased student mobility as a key driver.

“There’s just a lot of variability and mobility within the system as a whole,” Bartlett said, citing students moving, changing school choices and the possibility of immigrant families returning to their home countries. .

Future school enrollment could potentially increase depending on the number of students in preschool and kindergarten, especially as the state expands its preschool program in fall 2023 and continues to offer free kindergarten to full-time.

Preschool and kindergarten enrollment this school year bucked the K-12 enrollment trend, with preschool enrollment increasing by 4,478 students, an increase of nearly 17% year over year. last. The schools are educating 3,868 more kindergartens than last year, representing an increase of about 7% year-over-year.

More students in these years could mean more students in later years.

Bartlett is encouraged by the increased enrollment among Colorado’s youngest learners, especially preschoolers.

“I’m a big believer in early childhood education,” she said, “and the more students we get engaged in the system earlier, the better outcomes I hope we can be able to give them. to offer.”

Eschbacher views the increases in preschool and kindergarten enrollment as modest after schools suffered the largest enrollment losses in those grades last year. The state reported a 23.3% decline in preschool enrollment and a 9.1% decline in kindergarten enrollment last year.

So many parents held back their 4- and 5-year-olds amid the pandemic last year, he said, that “a certain percentage of them joined the districts this year.”

– Demographic changes in schools could come from changes in state population

With the spread of COVID, particularly the omicron variant, still testing schools’ ability to maintain in-person classes, the pandemic is also reducing K-12 enrollment in Colorado.

The number of students opting to homeschool this school year is 10,502, one-third less than the 15,773 students homeschooled in fall 2020. However, the number of homeschooled children in the State remains well above the 7,880 children who were homeschooled in 2019, before the pandemic. Many students are also choosing to learn through online educational programs — 31,382, compared to 32,034 who took their classes online last year, according to state Department of Education figures.

Public school demographics are also changing across the state, according to enrollment numbers. The state’s Hispanic student population enrolled in schools jumped by 4,357 students to a total of 306,215. Meanwhile, fewer white students showed up at public schools this year, with 3,106 fewer students than last year. The state registered 460,186 white students this school year.

These changes could indicate broader demographic shifts in Colorado. The percentage of white residents living in Colorado fell 0.2% from 2010 to 2020, translating to a decrease of nearly 6,300 people, according to 2020 census data. During the same period, Colorado’s Hispanic or Latino population increased by 21.6%, increasing by more than 224,700 people.

“Colorado’s overall population is becoming less white and more diverse,” said Van Schoales, senior director of policy at the Keystone Policy Center, a nonprofit research group. “I think the schools would reflect that.”

While Colorado faces declining birth rates, its general population grew 14.8% between 2010 and 2020, according to 2020 census data.

“Only time will tell if this will somehow help stable K-12 enrollment,” said Maya Lagana, a contractor with the Keystone Policy Center.

Bartlett of the state Department of Education also cautioned against making sweeping assumptions about enrollment changes in the state, stressing the importance of looking at changes district by district.

It is important in terms of demographics and number of registrations. More than 60 districts in Colorado had fewer students this school year, but 115 districts saw an increase in enrollment.

Colorado has developed a funding mechanism to help districts struggling with declining student enrollment.

A state formula that seeks to spread funding is meant to help soften the blow, providing funding to districts based on their current year of student enrollment or an average of two, three, four or five years, whichever results in the greatest number of students.

But the average provision will not solve the whole district funding problem.

“Colorado doesn’t fund public education as well as many states,” said DPS Chief Financial Officer Chuck Carpenter, “and certainly declining enrollment plus state funding is a challenge for all school districts. , not just for Denver.”

– Colorado Sun writer Thy Vo contributed to this report.

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