This week, the Department of Education released its latest report card on our nation’s schools (National Association of Educational Progress, 2022). It’s not good. Test scores are down. Attendance is down. Retention is down. It’s easy to blame the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s an honest cause. But it’s not the only cause of these declines. Even before the pandemic hit, schools across the country experienced declining attendance, enrollment, and staff shortages.
Many politicians and educators hoped that student enrollment numbers would rebound as the pandemic became better managed and schools reopened. But as we’ve all seen, enrollment remained down as the current school year started. Schools of all types experienced the most significant drop in student enrollment since 1943 (Stanford, 2022). Speaking on the issue, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said that the “urgency has shifted from getting institutions open to now keeping them open, providing the necessary academic, financial and mental health support for students and families, and strengthening our K-12 and post-secondary education systems.” Did you notice the inclusion of families in Secretary Cardona’s response? We want to keep schools open, viable, and thriving, and to do that, we need strategic family engagement to increase student enrollment. The first step in this process is understanding why student enrollment is dropping. Then we can address concerns, attract prospective students, and meet the needs of our current students and families.
How Bad is the Problem?
School enrollment fluctuates naturally from year to year. But the changes seen during the last few years have been far from the norm. Dramatic declines in our nation’s largest cities illustrate the problem. New York City’s student population decreased by 51,000 in the last two years. Los Angeles schools saw their population drop by 26,000 students. And Chicago schools have 24,000 fewer students than just two years ago (Kamenetz, Turner, & Khurana, 2021). These trends aren’t just in large cities but across the country. Overall, more than 1.2 million students have left public schools since the pandemic’s beginning (Return2Learn). To make matters worse, federal data suggest that these school enrollment declines will continue for at least the next eight years, especially in public schools (Irwin et al., 2022).
Why Didn’t Students Come Back?
Educators at all levels seek to understand why student enrollment didn’t return to previous levels as schools reopened. The financial implications are substantial, with millions of dollars at stake for individual schools and districts. Without that funding and with dwindling school enrollment, school leaders are facing tough decisions about how to keep schools open or if they should consolidate schools. Understanding why students didn’t come back to school as expected is a critical first step to bringing them back.
The truth is that there is no one single reason. Yes, the pandemic is partly to blame, but parents’ reasons for not returning to public schools are as individual as the students themselves. Many parents, unhappy with the educational options presented by public schools during the height of the pandemic, chose alternative schooling options. A substantial number of those parents decided to continue with those school choice options even after public schools reopened. Several themes emerge from student enrollment data that help us understand families’ decision-making process.
Increase in school choice options. As public school enrollment trended downward, many areas of the country saw simultaneous increases in homeschooling and enrollment in charter schools, private schools, and online educational options. These programs offered potential students a differentiated education and greater choice regarding curriculum and instruction regardless of their school zone.
Fewer students are enrolling for the first time. Lower birth rates in the United States resulted in projections for a modest enrollment decline before the pandemic. As it hit, many parents of young children opted to delay enrolling their children in prekindergarten and prekindergarten programs, expressing concerns about their health, safety, and educational options. Overall, the impact was fewer incoming students at lower grade levels.
Financial issues. Schools were not alone in going virtual during the pandemic. Many businesses did the same. And many of those have retained full-time or part-time virtual employment opportunities for their employees. The result is that families are no longer geographically bound by their jobs. They can now move to the community of their choice without concerns about finding a new job.
At the same time, parents with jobs that couldn’t go virtual experienced significant financial strain. In many cases, teenagers within these families had to work to help support their families. Getting those students back in school is difficult as the financial needs remain prevalent.
Responding to the Enrollment Crisis
As parents continue to evaluate and re-evaluate educational options for their children, schools must re-imagine the family experience to address the reasons why parents choose to leave. Strategic family engagement must be part of this process.
Provide accurate and timely information to families. Parents are bombarded with more stories in the news about education and their local schools than ever before. Schools like yours need to clear the chaos to address myths and misconceptions they may have about your school, address questions about safety and security, and provide information relevant to their child and family. Families need to see your school as the source of this accurate and timely information.
Make it meaningful. Communication between school and home frequently happens in one of two ways. Parents receive a litany of information in emails, phone calls, and papers stuffed in their child’s backpack, or they hear nothing. The result is often the same. When too much information is shared by multiple schools and in various ways, it gets confusing, and parents miss critical information, just as if there were no communication at all. Complex messaging, too much or too little information, or too much work for parents to do diminishes the school culture and climate. When the enrollment process is confusing or complicated, things get even worse.
Schools must start providing information to families in short bursts that are user-friendly. In today’s digital world, that’s best accomplished through brief Q&A videos that answer parents’ most common questions, give them a glimpse of what life is like at your school, and help them to feel connected to another family or staff at the school.
Build brand awareness. Why do you choose to try a new product? It’s probably because you like what you’ve seen and heard about it. That’s brand awareness, and schools need to start building their brand just like businesses do. Highlight your students’ positive outcomes. Brag about their accomplishments. Show where they go to college. Share information about how connected, supported, and well-educated your students and families are. Parents want to be better informed about the best choices for their families. They need to see those positive outcomes to do that.
Build your network. Gone are the days when family involvement consisted simply of educators sharing information with parents or asking parents to help the school. Strategic family engagement requires building collaborative relationships between families and staff and among families. Families that are connected and have a peer group have higher engagement and retention rates, a more positive experience, and are more likely to spread the word to prospective students and their families. Similarly, families who feel connected to teachers, staff, and administrators are more likely to collaborate and share information with teachers. They’re more likely to actively support the school with time, money, and public support.
How Will You Increase Enrollment?
Public, private, independent, and charter schools all face the same dilemma. School enrollment is declining, and the competition is heating up. It’s time for schools to prioritize strategic family engagement to recruit, engage, and retain families.
Irwin, V., DeLaRosa, J., Wang, K., Hein, S., Zhang, J., Burr, R., Roberts, A., Barmer, A., Bullock Mann, F., Dilig, R., & Parker, S. (2022). The condition of education 2022. National Center on Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2022144#:~:text=The%20Condition%20of%20Education%202022,Browse%20the%20Condition%20of%20Education
Kamenetz, A., Turner, C., & Khurana, M. (2021). Where are the students? For a second straight year, school enrollment is dropping. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/12/15/1062999168/school-enrollment-drops-for-second-straight-year
National Center of Educational Progress (2022). The Nation’s Report Card. https://www.nationsreportcard.gov
Return to Learn https://www.returntolearntracker.net/2020-22-enrollment-changes/
Stanford, L. (2022). School enrollment crashed in fall 2020, the steepest drop since 1943. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/school-enrollment-crashed-in-fall-2020-the-steepest-drop-since-1943/2022/06