State student enrollment grows 1.6 percent

Preschool through 12th grade enrollment in Colorado increased by 13,438 students in the current school year – the rough equivalent of adding a district the size of Littleton.

The increase was 1.6 percent, about what officials had expected, and it brought total enrollment to 876,999. Statewide school enrollment has increased for 24 consecutive years.

As expected, the new count put Denver Public Schools in the top spot with 86,043 students, ahead of the 85,983 in Jeffco, which has been the state’s largest district for several years. (Jeffco put its own spin on the data, issuing a news release Tuesday afternoon noting that it remains the largest district based on K-12 enrollment, not counting preschool.)

Denver’s increase was 3.2 percent, but the largest percentage increase was posted by the Falcon district in El Paso County, which gained 3,402 students, or 22 percent. The Dougco and Aurora districts also gained more than 1,000 students each from the prior year.

Among larger districts, the Adams 12-Five Star Schools dropped 2.4 percent to 42,230 students. The state Charter School Institute, which supervises charters not overseen by school districts, lost 1,281 students, or 10.9 percent. The latest enrollment count also found 16,215 students enrolled in online program, a 2.5 percent drop from 2012-13.

Some of the enrollment shifts were attributable to charter schools moving between districts.

The enrollment figures highlight the size disparities among school districts.

The top 15 districts, from DPS to Pueblo City (which has 17,990 students), enroll a total of 596,868 kids — 68 percent of the state’s total enrollment. At the other end of the spectrum, 136 districts and other education agencies serve only 7.9 percent of total students and have individual enrollments of fewer than 2,000. There are 112 agencies with fewer than 1,000 students each.

All top 15 districts gained enrollment except for Adams 12 and Colorado Springs 11. Falcon’s significant growth moved it into the top 15, jumping over Brighton, Thompson and Littleton. Each of those three districts grew slightly, as did Harrison and Westminster, the only other two districts with more than 10,000 students.

Statewide minority enrollment was calculated at 44.9 percent, compared to 44.4 percent last year. Among ethnic groups, the number of students identified as multiracial increased 8.5 percent, and the number categorized as Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander increased 7 percent.

The enrollment count found 42.2 percent, or 356,890 students, were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch this year, up slightly from 41.9 percent in 2012-13. That designation is used as the proxy to designate a student as academically at-risk, which also is a factor in the funding formula.

Enrollment key to funding

The annual state enrollment figures are closely watched because pupil counts are a key factor in determining how much state aid school districts receive. The figures released Tuesday by the Department of Education are “headcounts” of actual students, regardless of whether they’re full- or part-time. For funding purposes headcounts are translated into a number called full-time equivalent.

Because enrollment is higher than the number estimated when the 2013-14 state budget was approved last spring, districts could receive a mid-year budget increase of up to $55 million. The current budget for basic school operations is about $5.5 billion.

The enrollment is count is based on attendance figures gathered during a small window of days around Oct. 1 that are then audited and compiled by CDE.

That system long has been questioned for its accuracy, and there is growing interest among legislators to switch to a system called average daily membership, which calculates and averages enrollment across the school year. Gov. John Hickenlooper called for that in last week’s state-of-the-state speech.

A bill on the issue is expected during the current legislative session, but nothing has been introduced yet. Making the switch won’t necessarily be easy, as the necessary computer upgrades could be costly. School districts, especially those that could lose enrollment under the new system, also may be skeptical about such a switch.

More enrollment stats

Eleven districts showed growth of 10 percent or higher. In addition to Falcon, Cheyenne Mountain at 10.2 percent was the only larger district in that category.

Some 81 districts and other entities lost enrollment. Other than Adams 12, the only other Denver metro district to register a noticeable decline was Englewood, which dropped 4.9 percent. (Sheridan dropped by one student, well less than 1 percent.)

The other declining districts were generally small, where a fluctuation of a handful of students can make a noticeable percentage difference.

Here are some enrollment trends by grade over the last decade:

  • Preschool enrollment has increased 58.7 percent
  • Enrollment increased by more than 20 percent in grades K-13 and 28.5 percent in grade 12
  • Enrollment increased only 2.3 percent in grade 9 and by less than 10 percent in grades 7 and 8

The state’s smallest district, Agate on Interstate 70 north of Limon, reported 12 students this year, up from 10 in 2012-13.

Of Colorado’s 10 smallest districts or units, five reported growth (Agate, Creede, Pritchett, Silverton and the San Juan BOCES), and five lost enrollment (Campo, Hinsdale County, Kim, Liberty and Plainview). Each has 80 or fewer students.

The count recorded 45,971 students in private schools, about 5,000 fewer than in 2012-13 and down 9.3 percent over the last five years. However the number of home-schooled students was up to 7,489, a 30.4 percent increase from the prior year.