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

Colorado’s public school enrollment decreased this fall for the first time in more than 30 years, as families turned to homeschooling and other options because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The number of kids enrolled in preschool through 12th grade totaled 883,281 this fall, down 3.3%, or 29,942 students, compared to the year prior, according to preliminary enrollment figures released by the Colorado Department of Education on Tuesday.

Public schools saw the sharpest declines in preschool and kindergarten enrollment, which are down 23.3% and 9.1%, respectively, the agency reported.

Though increases in enrollment had been incremental in recent years, the last time it dropped was in 1988, according to the education department.

The state’s largest districts were hit hardest, with some seeing decreases well above the state average. Enrollment in the Douglas County School District dropped 6.4%, while Boulder Valley dropped 5.6% and Colorado Springs District 11 dropped 8.2%. Denver Public Schools hit the average at a 3.3% decline in students.

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 of Education.

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Sharp declines in younger student enrollment is also a big factor, she said. Statewide, the education department estimates about 27,609 fewer preschool through fifth graders enrolled this year, with the biggest declines among preschoolers (down 8,009 students) and kindergarteners (down 5,798).

“There was a term that was new to me — a red-shirt kindergartener. Like a red shirt freshman, they’re delayed in starting preschool or kindergarten,” Okes said. “We’re seeing a lot of that, parents are delaying when their kids start school.”

Still, that leaves many students unaccounted for. The state does not collect data about private school enrollment and Okes said it’s possible many kids moved to a private institution or out of state. Some student athletes moved at the beginning of the semester in anticipation of their sports season being postponed or canceled.

Colorado trends mirror others throughout the United States. Enrollment in Missouri and North Carolina, for example, are down 3% to 5%, according to local reports. At New York City Public Schools, the country’s largest district, 31,000 fewer students — a 3.4% drop — are on rosters this year, according to Chalkbeat.

In a survey of more than 60 districts, NPR found the average kindergarten enrollment decreased by 16%.

Colorado’s 10 largest districts experienced the most dramatic year-over-year drops:

  • 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

More than 32,300 students enrolled in online education programs, an increase of 44% compared to 2019. That number includes students enrolled in state-designated online schools (multi-district or single-district) and single-district online programs. It does not include students who are staying enrolled in their traditional school, but learning 100% remotely, the education department said.

Among racial and ethnic groups, enrollment was down almost across the board.

White students, the largest group, experienced the most substantial decrease, down 19,721 students, or 4.1%, to 463,330. Hispanic or Latino enrollment dropped 2.6% to 301,887, while Black or African American enrollment dropped 2.7% to 40,424, Asian enrollment dropped 2.7% to 28,425 and American Indian and Alaskan native enrollment dropped 5.8% to 5,849.

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

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

Every October, the state education department counts the number of students attending public schools and allocates funding on a per-pupil basis. The average allocation to schools per student for the 2020-2021 academic year is $7,985. But when kids leave for another school or homeschooling, money leaves, too.

Typically, enrollment tallies are not released until January; however, the state made an exception this year because of the pandemic’s unique circumstances. The final results are expected to be confirmed by mid-January, education officials said.

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