Colorado’s kindergarten math: How a pandemic plus lower birth rates are changing school for young learners

Young children play on a blacktop during recess at a school summer program.
Students return from recess during a weeklong summer transition program at Peiffer Elementary School in the Jeffco district. (Ann Schimke / Chalkbeat)

A musical phone alarm went off in Sharon Gray’s classroom — a cue that it was time for students to switch to a new activity station. 

“Boys and girls, remember how we’re learning about rotating?” she said to the soon-to-be kindergartners at her table. “Where do you guys get to go?”

A little boy answered immediately. “The park!” he said. 

The correct answer was actually the block table at the other end of the orange-carpeted room, but such trial and error was part of the weeklong Jump Start program at Peiffer Elementary in Colorado’s Jeffco school district. 

Paid for with federal stimulus dollars, the summer transition program is among a host of initiatives school districts are launching this year as they prepare to welcome a new crop of children to classrooms after more than a year of disrupted schooling — and in some cases, no formal schooling at all. District leaders also plan to reduce class sizes, add coaches and intervention teachers, and provide tutoring.

Many experts fear the youngest students could face the most substantial social and academic gaps, both because pandemic upheaval came during a critical time in their development and because thousands of children didn’t attend preschool and kindergarten last year as they normally would have. 

In Colorado, the biggest K-12 enrollment drops last year occurred in kindergarten, with a statewide decline of 7,000 students, or 9%. That matches national trends, including findings from a new Stanford University and New York Times analysis of 70,000 schools in 33 states.

The size of last year’s kindergarten decrease varied among Colorado districts, with some areas harder hit because of the state’s declining birth rate. The rapidly growing Brighton-based District 27J saw a slight dip of 3%; Denver, the state’s largest district, saw an 8% decline; and the Pueblo 60 district saw a 17% drop.   

The absence of so many kindergartners from last year’s public school rolls raises lots of questions that educators will begin to answer when school starts in the coming weeks: Who stayed in preschool an extra year? Who attended kindergarten in a private program or another district? And who missed out completely?

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said students who have historically been marginalized in the U.S. education system, including children of color, dual language learners, and students with disabilities, were more likely to lose access to early education during the pandemic, worsening existing inequities.

“My guess is that teachers are going to be challenged by the fact that children have had such a wide array of experiences in the year prior to this fall,” he said. 

Enrollment rebounds — to a point

Kindergarten enrollment is poised to rebound this year, though not generally to the level it was prior to the pandemic, according to a Chalkbeat survey of 12 districts, including the state’s six largest. Only one-third of the districts polled, including Mapleton, Westminster, Cherry Creek, and Jeffco, expect to surpass their kindergarten enrollment numbers from the 2019-20 school year.

The other eight districts predicted lower kindergarten enrollment this fall than in 2019, with double digit drops possible in the Greeley-Evans, Aurora, and Pueblo 60 districts. 

District officials cautioned that projections are preliminary and could change if there’s a late rush in enrollment or other developments. 

Christina Weiland, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan, said many experts expected kindergarten enrollment to exceed pre-COVID levels this year.

“We know we have a lot of kids who sat out kindergarten last year,” she said

But she also acknowledged the growing number of factors in play, from the surging delta variant to changing policies on masks and quarantines.

“There are so many pushes and pulls right now,” she said. “It is a very local and heterogenous story everywhere.” 

Weiland, the lead author of a recent University of Michigan and Urban Institute report on early childhood pandemic effects, said it will be more important than ever for educators to use their in-person instructional time wisely this year, especially if quarantines or school shutdowns persist.

The report recommends a variety of ways schools can use stimulus money to accelerate learning for young children, including tutoring as early as kindergarten, hiring assistant teachers, adding mental health support, and replacing ineffective curriculum with high-quality options.

Lower birth rates mean fewer students

Tangled up with COVID-related enrollment changes are declines associated with Colorado’s shrinking child population, particularly in school districts with aging populations or pricey housing. State Demographer Elizabeth Garner said births in Colorado began slowing in 2007 and have dropped every year since.  

“Absolutely hands down we are seeing fewer kids,” she said. “That is going to be part of your impact [on enrollment] and I’m sure COVID is your other part.” 

Most metro Denver counties — though not Denver itself — have lost children in the kindergarten and first grade age range over the last decade. The decline is steepest in Douglas County, where the population of 5- to 7-year-olds has dropped 28% since 2010. Boulder, Jeffco, and Adams counties have experienced smaller declines. 

Shrinking Population of Early Elementary Children

Over the last decade, the population of 5- to 7-year-olds has declined in several large Colorado counties and the state as a whole. Such drops can have big implications for school enrollment.

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Before the coronavirus hit, officials in the 37,000-student Adams 12 district north of Denver expected a 2% decline in kindergarten numbers in 2020-21 because of birth rate trends. Instead they got a pandemic-fueled 14% drop.

Matt Schaefer, the district’s planning manager, said it’s hard to know where all those missing students ended up in part because kindergarten isn’t mandatory in Colorado so there’s less data available than for students in other grades. 

Even with the first day of school fast approaching, Schaefer said enrollment numbers are still in flux. Some parents are getting cold feet about in-person school because of the delta variant and have recently switched their children to the district’s online learning program, he said. Meanwhile, with the availability of the vaccine, other parents have had the opposite change of heart, switching their kids back to in-person school. 

“There’s a lot of movement in each direction right now,” Schaefer said. “We are just drowning in it all and just waiting for the moment when the dust settles.

Teachers plan to take it slow

Chris Christoff, a teacher at Centennial Elementary in Denver, doesn’t expect a wider range of skills among his 27 incoming kindergarten and first-grade students than in a typical year. His multi-age classroom has always included some children who didn’t attend preschool and others who are reading chapter books.

What may be different this year, he said, is the distribution of students along that range. 

Christoff, who taught remotely all of last year, said the stimulation of a busy classroom will likely be the biggest change for him and many of his students once school starts. 

“We’re going to take the social acclimation a little bit slower,” he said, with more focus on helping kids regulate their emotions and communicate their needs. 

He’s heard some teachers who taught in person at the end of last year say that some returning students acted like they still had their mute button on — making comments and having side conversations as if others couldn’t hear them. On the plus side, Christoff expects his students will easily adapt to any computer-based activities this year. 

Students in the first- and second grade classroom play with water beads during the Jump Start summer program at Peiffer Elementary School. (Ann Schimke / Chalkbeat)

At Peiffer Elementary, the 90 preschool through fifth grade students who attended the Jump Start summer program represented a cross section of pandemic experiences. About half attended in person last year, a quarter attended remotely, and the remaining students are new to the school.  

Principal Molly Touher said she hopes the summer program will ease first-day jitters, build stamina for a full in-person school day, and help students, especially the youngest ones, with school rhythms and procedures. 

“What we focused on was trying to connect the social-emotional learning with some of the academic skills,” she said.  

One such lesson played out for preschoolers gathered in the school kitchen on the fourth day of Jump Start. They were preparing to make homemade Play-Doh by following the steps of a recipe, which their teacher reminded them is “another word for a routine.”

Down the hall, In the first and second grade room, where children played with Legos, blocks and squishy water beads, the word of the day was perseverance, the ability to see a task through despite difficulties and obstacles. 

A first grader at the water bead table took a stab at defining it and got close. 

“Keep doing it till it’s hard,” she said.

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