Missing the Mark: K-12 Enrollment Lower than Expected

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Albemarle school officials announced preliminary enrollment figures for the current school year that showed 622 fewer students have enrolled than were expected. Stock photo.

At the September 9 School Board meeting, Albemarle school officials announced preliminary enrollment figures for the current school year that showed 622 fewer students have enrolled than were expected. “Our total enrollment is about 4% less than what we projected,” said division Chief Operating Officer Rosalyn Schmitt, as student enrollments did not bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. “We were assuming more students would return, particularly at the lower grades, but ultimately those assumptions did not pan out.” 

The statistics generated no apparent interest among either the attendant board members or the Superintendent during the brief presentation—none asked questions or made comments. One question from the data might have at least elicited curiosity: where are those hundreds of children attending school now? Division officials have no clear response.

David Oberg, White Hall District School Board representative, gave his best guess after the meeting. “I know we had a lot of kids not register for Kindergarten because you can delay enrollment depending on when your birthday is, so a lot of them are distance learning,” he said. “I think middle school students [who dis-enrolled] went elsewhere or are home schooling. Look, we live in an area where people can afford private tutors and private school.”

ACPS Chief Operating Officer Rosalyn Schmitt presents data on reduced enrollment this year by school type. Courtesy ACPS.

One reason for the speculation may be that many parents are not officially asked why they are leaving the public schools or where their children are going instead. “The reaction by the School Board to the data on the [dis-enrolled] kids leaving is really disconcerting,” said Chad Ciesil, parent of a current fourth and sixth grader whom he pulled from the school system this year. “We had nice conversations [about alternatives] with our children’s teachers at Brownsville, who were wonderful, but nobody from the larger school system inquired [where we planned to go]. The emails they sent in the spring only asked, are you coming back or not, yes or no?”

Is the division responsible for finding out where previously enrolled students have gone, and whether they are now being adequately educated? “I honestly have no idea. I can’t tell you,” said Oberg. “I mean, if a kid doesn’t show up, I suspect that the principal will call the family.” 

The answer, legally, appears to be yes. Virginia state law (sections 22.1-260 and 261) requires that each public school must report to the division superintendent both the enrolled and “not enrolled” children for that school’s jurisdiction, along with the name and address of each student’s parent or guardian, within the first ten days of the school year. The division’s attendance officer must then use these lists and other sources to compile a master list of students who are not enrolled in any school and are not exempt from school attendance, and follow up with each student’s family.

When asked about this data for Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS), the division’s Strategic Communications Officer Phil Giaramita demurred. “We are only required to keep [records of] the homeschool enrollments and requests for religious exemption,” he said, “and there really is not a division-wide attendance officer.” The School Board’s attorney, Ross Holden, did not respond to a request for comment about the legal requirements.

Where Are They Now

“Missing” students are a nationwide issue, and state education departments polled by the industry publication Education Week reported a loss of more than 1.4 million enrolled students during the 2020-21 (pandemic) school year. Virginia was among 15 states with the largest drop—a -3.5% enrollment change (-4.7% in the elementary grades not including kindergarten). In Albemarle County, total actual enrollment dropped by 824 students during the pandemic last year. As county schools reopened this fall with in-person instruction for all grades, school officials predicted that enrollment levels would fully rebound, but the division netted back only 19% of the deficit. 

“That projection was made in October of last year,” said Schmitt, “and we had to do some unique things given the circumstances. But then we didn’t go back to school in Stage 4 until March, and we didn’t make a commitment to return to five days [for this school year] until May. So, we’re hearing anecdotally that a lot of students who were in private school last year had to commit in January and February, and there was still some uncertainty about what our delivery method would be,” so those children stayed away.

ACPS Chief Operating Officer Rosalyn Schmitt presents data on reduced enrollment this year by grade level. Courtesy ACPS.

Schmitt gave other explanations for the projection miss. “Homeschooling still seems higher than usual, and I think there are a couple of reasons for that,” she said. “Some families that elected to homeschool last year really liked it, so they are continuing. Others, I think, are still cautious because of the pandemic. So yes, we anticipated there would be a bounce back, and we still do—I just don’t think it’s happening as quickly as we thought in October of last year.”

Asked about the student data required by law, Schmitt said it’s available. “It’s just not in one place,” she said. “Each school has that information of who went where, and we will do that analysis when things settle down a little bit. I think as we turn the corner toward next year’s budget season and those projections, we are going to need to know where kids are right now. Last fall we sent a survey to those [families who] left the division to try to get a sense of whether they were planning to come back, but it’s hard to get a good response rate when they’re not with us anymore.”

Going Private

“You’d think they’d want to know where are our kids going, and why,” said Brandi Clifford, parent of three school-age kids in Albemarle’s western district. “I’ve heard that from lots of parents—it’s like nobody even missed us.” Clifford and her husband decided to send their middle schooler to Covenant School this year, and have been surprised at the lack of division interest in the reasons for their (and others’) exit. “I don’t think they really care—they’ve got bigger fish to fry at this point.”     

In Albemarle, kindergarten enrollment was 12% below projections, which division officials say is due to families delaying their children’s start by a year (though kindergarten registration is required for kids who are five years old by September 30 unless their parents request an exemption). Grades K-2 saw steep declines from projections, followed closely by sixth and seventh grades with -7.6% and -7% variances, respectively. Among western district schools, Brownsville Elementary was -14% below projections, and Henley Middle School had the largest decline among county middle schools with a -7.4% difference (down 67 students).

Clifford says that last year’s fourth and fifth graders got the short end of the return-to-school stick last spring when the K-3 students went back four days per week and grades 6-12 had synchronous or in-person instruction four days per week. “Through the entire school year, our fifth grader averaged only 12 hours of education a week,” she said. “Our schools have gotten so far away from having any sort of traditional curriculum in terms of just having textbooks, that my husband and I would constantly be trying to help her at home but, literally, we had no materials to reference.

“Our students missed out on so many learning opportunities, and I didn’t feel confident that Albemarle had a plan for how they would make up the learning loss in important areas like grammar, reading, math—skills that they need for life,” said Clifford. At that point they decided to try Covenant, as did at least seven other families from Henley Middle School’s district. “My husband and I are products of public school—never has private school been a consideration for us. This isn’t something that we thought we’d ever do.”

Close to Home

According to the division homeschooling data, the number of students who are formally homeschooled (which requires filing annual notifications with ACPS) jumped 17%, from 661 last year to 773 this year. While 90 students from last year’s pool are no longer homeschooling, 202 of the 773 are newly homeschooling this year. Religious exemptions (included in the total) increased from 22 to 32 this year. 

Megan Bailey, who has taught music at CHEC, the Charlottesville-based Community Homeschool Enrichment Center, for the last five years, said that she saw several dozen families join the ranks of homeschoolers during the pandemic and that interest remains high. “Many people came to us last year because they couldn’t stand the virtual instruction, and decided to homeschool because they were already doing it anyway, right?” she said. “But one of the big things that many of the new families who are sticking around this year have said is, ‘I had no idea it was going to go this smoothly.’ They are amazed at what their kids are able to learn.”

Beyond the registered homeschooling figures, ACPS cannot say for certain how (or if) the rest of the dis-enrolled students are being educated, and the likelihood of those students returning is difficult to estimate. Division officials suggested that the Gazette could survey private schools to find out whether their enrollments have increased due to the public school exodus. While local private schools declined to provide information publicly about applications and admissions this year, Field School Head Charles Skipper said his school predicted an uptick in interest and was prepared for it.

“We did add some additional staff and a couple of extra classrooms,” said Skipper, “so that we could maintain distancing and enroll a few more kids. We’re at our historical high for enrollment right now.” He said it seems unlikely that local private schools could have absorbed hundreds of the students who dis-enrolled last year. “I can’t speak for the other private schools, but I think most of us were pretty close to [maximum enrollment] already.” He also suggested that there might be a significant group of students who liked aspects of online education and have decided to simply stay home via state or national online programs, again under the radar of ACPS observation.

Beyond concerns over academic learning loss and return-to-school arrangements, families voiced opposition last spring to elements of a new division policy on transgender student treatment and an anti-racism curriculum introduced at Henley. Parents like Ciesil say that frustration with the school administration has been an ongoing issue, apart from the challenges of COVID, that has driven them to consider other options.

“I believe we all share the same overall goals, but a large percentage of parents feel that their concerns are being disregarded,” said Ciesil. “We see a School Board that has no interest in truly having a conversation about these significant policy issues. It’s hard to even characterize it as resistance [from the School Board and administration], it’s just a wall of not even wanting to hear us, and it’s really troubling. You end up losing confidence, you lose trust. The monolith of opinion on the School Board, the fact that there’s no actual diversity of thought, is also disconcerting.”

School Board member Oberg does not believe that parent anger over the division’s handling of policy rollouts has anything to do with lower enrollment numbers. “No, I don’t believe that,” he said. “What I can tell you is that there were a number of parents who showed concern, but that number was extraordinarily small compared to the size of Henley. Is it possible that there were a lot of people who were [concerned but] not talking? Sure. But the more logical answer [for lower enrollments] is the correct one—it’s Covid.”

Diminishing Returns

A significant portion of the county school division’s budget is provided by state funding on a per pupil basis, and in a typical year those funds would be cut in the fall based on declining enrollment. However, Virginia inserted a “hold harmless” clause into this year’s budget that allows school systems to keep all budgeted money, even though the current year allocations were based on pre-pandemic enrollment levels. School systems are hoping the state will do the same next year. “It’s my understanding that many divisions are in a similar position [as Albemarle], and so all will be advocating for the extension of that clause [for next year’s cycle as well],” said Schmitt.

Division officials like Schmitt and Oberg believe that, no matter their reasons for leaving, families will soon transfer their students back. “I suspect that next year when kids are inoculated and we’re getting back to some semblance of normalcy, those numbers will go back up,” said Oberg. “I think people are leaving because of Covid, and when Covid solidifies, and it will, we’re going to figure out a new normal.”

Ciesil is more circumspect. “We gave our decision [to move our children to a different school] an incredible amount of thought,” he said. “There are so many pieces to it—the academics, the community, their friend groups, the social/emotional element—we didn’t make the decision quickly or reflexively. The same process would have to happen for us to decide to come back, and a lot of things would need to change.” 

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