Fewer preschool and kindergarten students participated in Denver school choice this year

Six little children sit attentively on a rug in a classroom, looking at a book an adult facing them is showing.
If enrollment declines continue in preschool and kindergarten in Denver, the district could lose funding. (Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages)

The number of children who applied this winter to attend Denver Public Schools preschool and kindergarten this coming fall was down more than 20%, from nearly 10,500 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds last year to about 8,250 this year, district data shows.

The decline could mean one of two things. It could mean that families are waiting to see what public school will look like this fall before deciding to enroll. Or it could mean that the families who left the public schools in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic for private schools, homeschooling, or other arrangements aren’t coming back.

The second scenario could have financial implications for Denver Public Schools. Like all school districts in Colorado, its state funding is based on enrollment. If this winter’s enrollment trends for preschool and kindergarten continue, Denver could lose more than $12.5 million of its $1.1 billion budget, according to a presentation by district staff to the Denver school board.

“We’re hoping students come back,” said Liz Mendez, the executive director of enrollment and campus planning for Denver Public Schools.

The declines in Denver mirror national and statewide trends spurred by the pandemic. Colorado lost more than 29,900 students this year, or about 3.3%, with the biggest drops occurring in the early grades. Denver Public Schools also saw a 3.3% decrease.

Denver students who want to attend their neighborhood school don’t have to submit school choice applications, meaning Denver’s numbers are not a perfect predictor of enrollment. The numbers come from the district’s first round of school choice, which is an opportunity for students to apply in January and February to attend in the fall a district-run school outside of their neighborhood or an independent charter school. 

In total, more than 23,500 Denver families filled out school choice applications in January and February, district data shows. That’s about 2,800 fewer families than last year. 

The biggest declines were at the preschool and kindergarten levels. The district received 31% fewer applications for 3-year-old preschool programs, 26% fewer applications for 4-year-old preschool programs, and 15% fewer applications for kindergarten.

By comparison, school choice at the other transition grades of sixth and ninth grade was steady: sixth grade applications were down 4%, while ninth grade applications were up 1%. 

Jeffco Public Schools, Colorado’s second-largest school district behind Denver, also offers families an opportunity to apply in the winter for schools the following fall. But Jeffco’s system doesn’t allow for the same point-in-time comparisons as Denver’s does.

While the percentage of current Denver Public Schools preschoolers who applied for spots in kindergarten didn’t change much this year, the raw numbers declined. That’s because there are fewer students in preschool in Denver this year. It’s hard to pinpoint why. It could be that families felt it wasn’t safe or that they found other arrangements because the district wasn’t offering any type of preschool — in-person or virtual — for the first several weeks of school.

Mendez said the district was anticipating that more families who opted out of Denver Public Schools preschool this year would apply to preschool or kindergarten for next year. But the number of new applicants was lower — and less diverse — than the district hoped.

The new applicants were disproportionately white. Black and Hispanic students were underrepresented, as were students who live in southwest and far northeast Denver.

Families who didn’t participate in the first round of school choice in January and February have another chance. A second round of school choice is going on now.

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