Where are the kids? Colorado school enrollment trends shed light on closure discussions

A teacher pats one of his students on the head while he is working at a desk, seated next to a young girl.
Teacher Ryan Fune, right, helps Julian Hinojosa, 8, center, with a writing assignment during his third-grade class at Castro Elementary in Denver. (RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post)

As three large metro area school districts grapple with school closures due to declining enrollment, a common question looms: Where did all the children go?

To help answer that question, Chalkbeat looked at school enrollment data, county birth rate data, and U.S. Census data showing the number of children under 18 living in each school district. Looking to the future, we also examined federal school enrollment projections. Some numbers, like enrollment counts for private schools, aren’t available.

We found that lower birth rates played a role, as did some students enrolling in publicly funded but independently run charter schools. Other students ended up in the outer reaches of the metro area as their parents sought more affordable housing. 

Below, we shed light on the numbers that contribute to how many students show up to class.

Are there fewer children now than there were 20 years ago?

The answer in some parts of the state is yes, while the answer in other parts of the state is no.

Jeffco Public Schools has seen a steady decline in the number of children. The state’s second-largest district had 14% fewer children under 18 in 2020 living within its boundaries than it had in 2000. The same was true in Littleton Public Schools, which had 15% fewer children.

In several other metro area districts, the number of children has gone up and down, in some cases dramatically. From 2000 to 2020, the number of children living in the Aurora Public Schools district grew 77%. But the numbers were declining by 2015. The same pattern happened in the Adams 12 Five Star, Adams 14, and Denver Public Schools districts. 

Rising housing prices often push families out of cities to farther-out suburbs and rural areas where the cost of living is lower and there’s more land to build new single-family homes. Much of the new housing being built in cities and close-in suburbs are the type of apartments that have historically catered to adults without kids.

In a few school districts, the number of children under 18 has exploded. Those districts include 27J Schools, headquartered in the city of Brighton northeast of Denver, and School District 49, which includes parts of Colorado Springs. 

The number of children living in 27J increased a whopping 230%. In District 49, which bills itself as the fastest-growing school district in the state, it increased 244%.

The under-18 population in the Cherry Creek School District southeast of Denver also has been growing, but not as dramatically. It grew 33% from 2000 to 2020. The same is true for Greeley-Evans School District 6, where the under-18 population grew 44%. And the number of children living in the Douglas County School District was up 65%.

Have lots of students left district-run schools for charter schools?

In three large districts facing school closures, the answer is yes. But the migration to charter schools only partly accounts for the enrollment drop in district-run schools. 

In Aurora Public Schools, in 2005, less than 3% of students were enrolled in charter schools.  But the number of students in charter schools doubled from about 3,000 in 2010 to about 6,000, or 16.2% of all Aurora students, by 2020. 

In Denver Public Schools, only 8% of the district’s students attended charter schools in 2005. By 2010, that percentage had increased to 11% and by 2020 it was 23%.  

Part of the reason is that there were far fewer charter schools in 2005 than there are now. For example, Denver had 20 charter schools in 2005. In 2020, it had 60.

In Jeffco Public Schools in 2010 about 6.8% of students, or about 5,800, attended charter schools. By 2020, nearly 12%, or 9,500, attended charter schools. 

In addition, in Jeffco and Aurora, some students attend charter schools authorized by the state and not included in those numbers.

What about babies? Are people just not having as many?

Yes. For most metro area counties, the birthrate is lower now than it was in 2000. 

For example, in Denver County, which has the same boundary as the city, the birthrate per 1,000 people fell from 17.14 in the year 2000 to 11.78 in 2021. 

The same pattern was true for Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas, and Broomfield counties. But demographers are predicting upticks for Douglas and Broomfield counties by 2025. Birthrates in the other counties are expected to stay steady or slightly decrease.

In Jefferson County, the births per 1,000 people decreased from 12.72 in 2000 to 9.23 in 2021. State demographer Elizabeth Gardner said birthrates there have been declining since 2001.

While Jeffco schools may enroll more children in the future, Gardner said she doesn’t expect that overall the district will have as many children as it once did. 

“I don’t believe we ever get Jefferson County back to the level of births — or the level of kids they had in 2001,” Gardner said.

Statewide, her office is projecting a rise in children again by approximately 2035, but in part that’s because of more women in the state, not because the birthrate will spike. 

Will school enrollment go back up again?

The likely answer is no. Across the country, federal data shows the number of students in U.S. public schools had been trending upward since 1990. Now, the total student counts seem to have peaked in 2019, just before the pandemic. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of U.S. students is expected to hover around 49 million students for a few more years before decreasing to about 47 million by 2030. Projections show Colorado’s student count dropping from about 880,597 last year to about 817,300 in the same period.

In some regions, student numbers will increase, but that growth could be in different neighborhoods and communities, depending on housing construction and affordability.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.


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