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How drop in student enrollment will lead to more school closures through rest of decade

New data show more than 10% of all elementary schools across the country lost at least a fifth of their enrollment over a four-year period that includes the COVID-19 pandemic. The Brookings Institution also found the number of all schools nationwide that saw that level of drop in enrollment doubled between 2019 and 2021.

So, where are those students going? And what does that mean for public schools that are losing those students? Linda Jacobson has analyzed the data

She’s a senior writer for the 74, which is a national education news website, and she joined The Show to talk more about where students have gone.

MARK BRODIE: And as we sit here now in early 2024 what do we know about where exactly those students went?

LINDA JACOBSON: I think there's a combination of trends. Certainly, we've seen homeschooling increase that's documented. We've also seen enrollment increase in private schools and there's also been an uptick in sort of these new alternative, sometimes people call them hybrid models, of homeschooling combined with micro schools, online education. There's more options available for families than there ever have been before. And a lot of the decline, obviously in enrollment was seen in, in the early grades. So you also had families delaying kindergarten and, yeah, I think that's generally sort of the mix of what we've seen.

BRODIE: Yeah. Well, and so we've seen, for example, here in Arizona, in the Phoenix area of a few school districts have been talking about or have done something where they've had to close schools because of declining enrollment. How prevalent is that across the country that enrollment is down to the point where districts are deciding to actually just close schools. 

JACOBSON: I think it's far more widespread than we think it is. I think that's what the research from Brookings Institution showed was that there are districts now all over the country that have seen enough of a decline that it's no longer financially smart to keep some of these schools open. They're losing money on serving lunch and transportation and just keeping some of these buildings running. So I think obviously during the pandemic recovery period, nobody wanted to talk about closing schools. It was, you know, too painful to just get through the pandemic. And so I think this is the year that we're starting to hear more conversation about having to make some of those tough choices and it's no longer isolated to just certain major urban districts.

BRODIE: Yeah. Well, so what did the school administrators tell you about their decision making process when they realized that it really just wasn't economically feasible and maybe educationally it wasn't great either to keep these schools open and they just had to decide to shut them down.

JACOBSON: I think one of the sort of markers that a lot of districts are, are talking about is the 300 student level that when you dip below 300 students, 200 students, that it, it doesn't make sense anymore. And it's not just the, the business side, there's also just what you're providing students in the way of educational experience. when I talked to some people in the, the Jeffco school district, which is right outside Denver, they said they could no longer get after school providers to come to schools because they couldn't get enough kids to sign up.

So it didn't make business sense for them. You know, you would have to cancel other extracurricular type programs like choir or the chess club or, you know, some of these things that are really engaging for kids because again, there weren't enough students signing up to justify having a staff person or, you know, an adviser assigned to something like that. So it was really the content of, you know, the educational experience for the kids as well.

BRODIE: Well, what was the educational experience like for those students who had their schools closed and then had to sort of merge with, with other schools?

JACOBSON: Well, the the one that I have again focused on most recently was the Jeffco District where we kind of profile the superintendent there who had to make these tough decisions. You know, they've already closed like 16 schools, and they're going to close four more at the end of this school year. And so she was tough on one side to say we've got to go through this and the community really doesn't have a choice in the matter anymore.

But on the other side, she assigned staff members to both support the administrators in districts, I mean, in the schools, that were closing as well as some of the administrators that were all of a sudden absorbing 100 200 new kids, just to work through some of that merging of new families, new sort of cultures, you know, from other schools, some of what were some of the, you know, traditions et cetera that could be blended into this, this new school community. And then she also assigned liaisons to work with those families that were having to go through that transition. So really trying to hold people's hands, you know, through, through the process and it, you know, it's never easy.

BRODIE: Sure. What did the data tell you about the situation here in Arizona, both, you know, relative to the rest of the country and sort of what it says about what's happening here.

JACOBSON: When I was looking at some of the data for some of your larger districts. There weren't any numbers that were really high. I think the one that kind of stood out to me was Tucson, which had 12 of their schools, which amounted to about 15% of their district had schools that had lost at least 20% of their kids during sort of this pandemic, pre- and post-pandemic period and others, there was maybe just one school that kind of hit, that hit that level. And what stuck out to me about that Brookings research was that usually you hear enrollment loss referred to in terms of district wide or statewide numbers and what they did was really look at that school level, which is where families really feel at first. 

BRODIE: So do school district leaders expect that these enrollment drops are over, or are they expecting that more and more kids will continue to leave public schools and go elsewhere?

JACOBSON: I think in some places it has, you know, stabilized a little bit but places that have seen the decline kind of drop off, it still is not to the pre-pandemic numbers in general. So some came back but not all, I guess it's the way that, that you can look at it. And yeah, I mean, there's data that shows through the rest of this decade that we're going to continue to see declines. So I don't think it's over. I don't think anybody thinks it's over.

BRODIE: So does that mean potentially more school closures on the horizon?

JACOBSON: I would say absolutely.

BRODIE: All right, that is Linda Jacobson, senior writer at the 74. Linda, thank you so much for the conversation. I appreciate it.

JACOBSON: Sure. Thank you.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.