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Why school enrollment continues to drop


And now an exclusive report from our education team who spent the fall gathering school data and interviewing superintendents to answer one very important question. What happened to public school enrollment this fall after it dropped 3% nationwide during the last school year? The answer - while some districts have gained students, the majority are not yet back to where they were before the pandemic. NPR's Cory Turner explains.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: NPR collected data from hundreds of districts across the country. The resulting sample is not representative or comprehensive, but the numbers and interviews nevertheless show some clear patterns. The big one? That most of the districts we surveyed are still in a pandemic enrollment hole. To understand why, you need to know a few things about those missing students.

MICHAEL HINOJOSA: Half the kids we lost were pre-K kids.

TURNER: Michael Hinojosa runs the schools in Dallas, Texas, and says many preschool parents there simply held their kids back last year. And that's why federal data show nationwide preschool and kindergarten enrollment drop 13% between 2019 and 2020. So, preparing for this fall, Hinojosa and his team spent the spring and summer advertising. They put up billboards with preschoolers dressed like a teacher, a police officer and a doctor.

HINOJOSA: I mean, a pre-K-er with a stethoscope and a doctor's jacket to say, look, these kids are going to become doctors, but if they don't come back to school, they're going to fall further behind.

TURNER: And this fall, Dallas did see a bump in preschool enrollment, as did many places, though they're still not where they were before COVID. The head of Chicago Public Schools, Pedro Martinez, says some kids aren't back this year because their families enrolled them elsewhere in charter schools or private schools or moved out of district. Parents and caregivers wanted their kids in school full-time, he says. And they worried the public schools wouldn't be open or stay open.

PEDRO MARTINEZ: And so we saw a couple thousand students that transferred over to private schools in the city, assuring the families that they would be open in-person no matter what.

TURNER: We also heard a lot about older students who didn't log on for remote learning last year, but didn't change schools, either. They just disappeared. Well, district leaders told us that this summer, they went looking for those teens. John Davis, the chief of schools in Baltimore, says they used federal relief dollars to pay school staff to call students and families and knock on doors.

JOHN DAVIS: What you're doing is you're looking at kids with the worst attendance in your school and talking to the family, like, we're going to be back in person - right? - at the end of August or September and come back into whatever the school is and, like, let's do this.

TURNER: And Davis says those efforts helped prevent another big drop in Baltimore, though they too are not yet back to their pre-pandemic enrollment. We heard about one more challenge for schools trying to reconnect with older students this fall.

LESLI MYERS-SMALL: A lot of my principals were saying, Dr. Small, we're losing kids. They're telling us, I have to work. And they're working during the school day.

TURNER: Lesli Myers-Small runs the schools in Rochester, N.Y., and says many of these students are supporting their families.

MYERS-SMALL: We also knew that we were fighting against survival and poverty.

TURNER: Several superintendents told us their teams have been asking businesses to give these teens later hours. When that's not an option...

ERICK GREENE: School does not have to happen in the hours in which they happen right now.

TURNER: Errick Greene is superintendent in Jackson, Miss., and says for students who have to work, he's trying to make school more flexible.

GREENE: Late afternoon, early evening, weekends. If there's a piece of this that is asynchronous, then the world is open to us.

TURNER: And we heard this from school leaders around the country, that the pandemic set them back and recovery will take more than a year or two, but that it has also allowed them to creatively embrace an idea that has bothered educators for years, that it's time to throw out the old one-size-fits-all model of school and to better meet students and families wherever they're at. Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.