Douglas County public schools all see enrollment declines amid pandemic; Kansas education leader says it may be a statewide issue

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Illustration

Although public school districts have taken various routes to educate students during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, all four districts serving Douglas County residents have seen a similar issue — a decrease in student enrollment.

The issue may not just be a local one, as a state education leader told the Journal-World on Friday that student enrollments could be down statewide. She also noted parents using home-school options appear to be a significant driver of the issue.

“Just about every time we’ve had a meeting with superintendents, that has come up because they have been very worried about the count,” said Ann Mah, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education. “Anecdotally, from what we’ve heard, I would expect the overall number to be down a little bit.”

School enrollment declines:

Lawrence

2019: 11,609

2020: 11,284

Drop: 325, down 2.8%

Baldwin City

2019: 1,366

2020: 1,337

Drop: 29, down 2.1%

Eudora

2019: 1,754

2020: 1,707

Drop: 47, down 2.6%

Perry-Lecompton

2019: 731

2020: 729

Drop: 2, down 0.2%

Each school district in the state conducted an official enrollment count in late September. The Lawrence school district, the largest of the four districts in Douglas County, saw the steepest decline from that county — a drop of 325 students. According to data the district provided to the Journal-World, Lawrence counted 11,609 students in September 2019 and 11,284 students last month, which is a drop of about 2.8%.

The 2020 count is also the second year in a row the district saw a decline in enrollment. Last year, the district saw a decrease of 182, which was a 1.5% drop at the time.

Elsewhere, Eudora saw a drop of 47 students, Baldwin City saw a drop of 29 students and Perry-Lecompton saw a drop of two students.

However, Perry-Lecompton Superintendent J.B. Elliott said his school district’s drop was actually less dramatic than expected. He said the district had anticipated a bigger decline because of the sizes of the recent graduating class and the incoming kindergarten class this year.

Additionally, he said the district saw about 10-15 students choose to use homeschool options, rather than return to Perry-Lecompton schools during the pandemic. But the district’s drop was somewhat subsidized by the more than 20 students who moved into the district this year, he said.

Mark Dodge, a spokesman for the Eudora school district, said Eudora similarly had a smaller kindergarten class come in than the outgoing graduating class. He said other factors that may have contributed include the fluctuation of students moving in and out of the district and some parents having their children attend home school or virtual schools amid the pandemic.

“There are certainly many factors that impact a district’s enrollment numbers,” Dodge said.

Officials for the Baldwin City district did not respond to the Journal-World’s request for comment on Friday.

When asked this week if the Lawrence school district had any idea what caused its drop, spokeswoman Julie Boyle said the district did not have a definitive answer. But she noted the district is aware that some students left the district because it started with six weeks of remote learning, which was a departure from the other districts that mostly started with a hybrid in-person model.

“We know, anecdotally, of some who have left the district for schools, public and private, that are offering in-person classes,” Boyle said.

The district hopes to get a better understanding of its enrollment drop soon. Boyle said the district and school board are expecting to receive a report from RSP, a company that provides enrollment consultation to the district. She said they may also receive an update about the school district’s budget, which will be affected by the decline in students. A significant portion of the school district’s funding comes from the state government’s funding formula, part of which provides a certain amount of funding based on the amount of students in a district.

But the district is hoping for another chance to count students in the spring. Superintendent Anthony Lewis told the school board on Monday that he recently met with Education Commissioner Randy Watson and state board of education members, who mentioned the possibility of another count.

“We believe that would benefit our district due to our drop of enrollment in September,” Lewis said.

However, Mah, who represents part of Douglas County on the state school board, told the Journal-World that the state board does not have the authority to authorize a new official count and such action would need to be provided by the state legislature. But she said the board may formally ask the legislature to consider it when lawmakers convene in January.

Meanwhile, she said the state board expects to get a full breakdown of the statewide enrollment next month. While she too does not know a definitive reason for the drop, Mah said she knows many parents have decided to home-school their children amid the pandemic. She said the Kansas State Department of Education has registered a significant amount of new home-school operations this year.

According to data provided by the Kansas State Department of Education, the amount of non-accredited private schools, which is what the state calls home-school programs, drastically increased for the current school year. From July 2018 to June 2019, the state registered 1,341 of those schools. From July 2019 to June 2020, it increased a bit to 1,627 of those schools. But this year, from July through part of October, the state has already registered 4,885 of those schools, almost exactly three times as much as counted during the entirety of the 2019-2020 school year.

Mah said she also knows some parents have chosen to have their children attend rural or private schools, which may be able to provide more in-person learning opportunities than their home school district.

“Families are trying to decide what’s best for their particular situation,” Mah said. “There are lots of different arrangements,” she added.


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