Colorado schools missing 29,900 students as pandemic disrupts education

Fernanda Dominguez, 6, center, holds the hand of her mother Guadalupe Chavez, right, as she waits to be escorted to her classroom at Hodgkins Leadership Academy in Westminster on the first day of school. (Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post)

Colorado schools lost more than 29,900 students — a 3.3% decline — compared with the last school year, according to preliminary state data released Tuesday. The drop in enrollment means schools could see funding cuts and raises concerns about the well-being of children who haven’t been seen or heard from in months. 

Colorado typically releases official enrollment data in January, but due to the high level of interest this year, the state education department decided to release initial numbers in December. The preliminary enrollment numbers come from Colorado’s October Count Day, when districts tally the students in attendance to determine official student counts. If students don’t come to school or log in on that day, districts can use other methods to prove students really do attend their schools. 

Reflecting a trend seen nationally during the pandemic, the biggest drops came in the early grades, with kindergarten enrollment declining more than 9%. The drop comes just one year after Colorado made full-day kindergarten free to families, spurring a 24% increase in enrollment. While this decline doesn’t entirely undo last year’s gains, advocates worry that young children are missing out on critical early learning opportunities. Kindergarten is not mandatory in Colorado.

Total enrollment in preschool through 12th grade is 883,281, according to preliminary data. With education disrupted throughout the state, the declines occurred in districts that started the school year with students in classrooms and those where students mostly learned from home. Of Colorado’s 178 school districts, 141 reported enrollment declines.

The number of students being homeschooled doubled to 15,773, and a total of 32,321 students registered in online schools, a 44% increase from 2019. Colorado doesn’t track private school enrollment.

The last time Colorado as a whole saw a decrease in enrollment was 1988, at the tail end of years of economic trouble. 

The count is high stakes because the figures are used to determine school funding. Districts that are losing enrollment can use an average from the last two to five years to ease the hit, but the declines this year are significant enough that districts would still feel the lost revenue. 

Many superintendents have called for the state to use last year’s count for funding purposes. In a survey of district leaders earlier this fall, many said that students, unsatisfied with their other options, had returned to their home district after the October count. They said their districts were incurring costs to educate these students, and they needed a way to get reimbursed. Any change to how school funding is distributed would require the legislature to take action.

The 5,798 missing kindergartners and 13,802 students missing in first through fifth grade account for almost two-thirds of the enrollment decline. Eight thousand fewer 4-year-olds enrolled in public preschool, a 23% decline. School leaders and community advocates have been sounding the alarm about missing children for months. District administrators and family liaisons knocked on doors to locate them, and some districts even warned parents of the possibility of truancy charges.

Anecdotally, the reasons parents haven’t sent their children to school vary, from frustration with online and hybrid instruction to disagreement with mask requirements. Educators worry the most about children whose families may be in crisis and those who opted for online school due to fear of the coronavirus but don’t have adequate internet access or parental support to participate.

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District 11 in Colorado Springs had the largest decrease at 8.2%. A spokeswoman for the district said the drop was largely the loss of kindergarten and other new enrollment that the district had expected before the pandemic, rather than students leaving the district in large numbers. 

Other large districts that saw significant enrollment declines include: Douglas County (6.4%), Boulder Valley (5.6%), Aurora Public Schools (5.5%), Adams 12 Five Star Schools (5.2%), St. Vrain Valley, and Jefferson County (4.7% each). Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, saw a 3.3% decrease, the same as the state average.

The state saw differences in school enrollment based on race and ethnicity. Indigenous students reported the largest percentage decline, with 5.8% fewer students enrolling in school. White students were the next most likely to not be in school, with a reported 4.1% decrease. Enrollment among Black and Asian students declined 2.7%, while enrollment among Hispanic students declined 2.6%. 

Colorado also saw declines in the number of students who are English learners, those with disabilities, and those who qualify for federally subsidized meals, despite widespread job losses and economic hardship. Some children in poverty may not be in school at all. Families also may not have filled out forms indicating they qualify for subsidized meals because they’re in remote school or because the federal government waived requirements to allow districts to serve more meals.

The declines raise concerns that students who benefit the most from being in school are leaving at higher rates or not being identified for help. School districts also get additional money to serve these students, so the declines could have budgetary consequences.  

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