Wichita public school enrollment fell by more than 2,600 students this year, a 5.6% drop that has officials scrambling to reconnect with families and get kids back.
The enrollment drop echoes statewide and national trends, as many families opted for virtual schools or homeschooling during COVID-19 school closures and didn’t enroll at their local schools last fall.
Wichita recently hired two full-time staff members to visit preschools and daycare centers and meet with families whose students left the district.
They’re a little like college recruiters jockeying for promising athletes, said Terrell Davis, executive director of public affairs and special projects for the Wichita district.
“We’ve got star students. They’re wonderful kids, and we want to make sure that we’re providing them with every opportunity to be successful within the Wichita public schools,” Davis said.
“And so we’re actively engaging with those families. We’re not taking them for granted.”
The largest declines are in kindergarten, which fell by 8.6% statewide.
Kansas children are not required to attend preschool or kindergarten, although state data show that the vast majority of families send their children to kindergarten when they become eligible at 5 years old.
Mark Tallman, director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said districts with larger, well-established virtual schools were better positioned to pick up students of all ages who wanted self-paced online learning programs during the pandemic.
Although virtual schools — such as Andover ECademy or Kansas Connections Academy in Elkhart — operate under the umbrella of a particular school district, they can serve students from anywhere in Kansas.
Some families may have transferred to districts or private schools that opened classrooms when others closed. Others may have moved because of COVID-related job losses, Tallman said.
“Many districts are going to be looking at this issue of, ‘What kids were we expecting that didn’t come back in the current year? Are they going to be back next year? How do we find them?’” he said.
The drop in pre-K and kindergarten enrollment is especially pronounced, he said.
“The narrative was kind of, ‘Everyone’s really frustrated with their schools, and so they’re just dropping out. Whereas it really appeared to be much more concentrated with younger students,” Tallman said.
“It was in some cases easier for parents to decide just to stay home with them, because they could or (because they) were concerned about COVID or whatever.”
Education funding is based largely on enrollment, but districts have some leeway to account for abnormal years.
In Wichita, Davis said the newly established recruitment team will contact families that didn’t enroll last fall to tell them about options available in the Wichita district, including magnet schools and the Education Imagine Academy online program.
The district also will host “Intro to Kindergarten,” a live one-hour virtual event at p.m. May 4, to answer questions about kindergarten and explain the enrollment process. For more information, visit www.usd259.org/kindergarten.
“We’re seeing a dip in enrollment in urban districts around the nation. Some have different approaches,” Davis said. “We’re one of those who’s taking the approach of recruiting our kids back to Wichita.”
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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