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Kindergarteners complete math exercises Dec. 13, 2022 at Little Elementary School in Arvada. Little Elementary serves students kindergarten through fifth grade, and will be enrolling nearly an additional 100 students from Parr Elementary and other surrounding Jefferson County schools starting in 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Enrollment in Colorado public schools took another dip this school year, setting up reduced funding for districts across the state and raising the threat of further school closures.

The problems — which many districts have seen coming — stem from years of declining birth rates that have driven down the per-pupil funding districts rely on as fewer students enrolled in schools.  

The state saw a 0.37% decrease in enrollment last fall compared with 2021 as total enrollment decreased by 3,253 to 883,264 students, according to data released Wednesday by the Colorado Department of Education. The drop adds to waning enrollment since 2020, when the state recorded a decline of nearly 30,000 students — the first enrollment downturn in more than 30 years. Last year, Colorado counted about 1,200 fewer K-12 students, but the state also saw an uptick in preschool and kindergarten enrollments.

Declines this year, captured in the state’s annual October count, affected more than half of the state’s 178 school districts. Ninety-four districts along with seven Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, which provide resources and support to multiple districts that cannot afford them on their own, are facing enrollment drops this school year. They include six of Colorado’s 10 largest districts: Denver Public Schools, Jeffco Public Schools, Douglas County School District, Cherry Creek School District, Adams 12 Five Star Schools and Boulder Valley School District. Meanwhile, 85 districts and BOCES have seen their enrollment increase, according to CDE’s data, including Aurora Public Schools, St. Vrain Valley School District, Poudre School District and Academy School District 20.

“We have such a diversity in school districts that there’s not a one-size sort of environment or experience among school districts,” said Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer of the state education department.

The sharpest enrollment declines hit kindergarten and middle schools. Colorado tallied 4,506 fewer middle schoolers this year than last year, a decrease of more than 2%, according to state data. The number of kindergarteners in the state dropped by 2,373 kids, nearly 4% — evidence pointing to the toll that fewer births are taking on schools, said Brian Eschbacher, a Denver-based independent education consultant who previously served as executive director of planning and enrollment for Denver Public Schools.

The school system is the first institution to feel the ripple effects of fewer children being born, Eschbacher said.

Considering lower birth rates stretching back to 2017, he said, “it is likely that kindergarten enrollment will continue to decline, which will then put additional pressure on the overall K-12 system in future years as fewer students are entering and matriculating through schools.”

Colorado’s declining birth rate — which flattened in 2022 — is “hands down” shaping enrollment drops, said state demographer Elizabeth Garner.

About 62,400 Colorado kids were born in 2022, slightly up from 61,976 births in 2021. The birth rate, however, has remained flat, Garner said, even as the state has continued to see an increase in women of childbearing age.

An elementary classroom is decorated with math and literature reminders Dec. 13, 2022 at Little Elementary School in Arvada. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The state hit its peak with births in 2007, when 70,777 children were born, and Garner predicts the state’s birth rate could rebound but not until 2034 at the earliest.

“I think this decade we will see a slowdown in enrollment in almost every area,” she said. “After this decade, we may start to see an increase.”

Eschbacher anticipates that the declines in student enrollment across the state could lead to more school closures — similar to recent decisions in Jeffco Public Schools to close 16 elementary schools at the end of the school year.

“Districts are going to have to analyze how changing enrollment patterns combined with changing funding structures from the federal and state level may impact the number of schools and programs that they are able to offer in the future,” he said.

The first step districts must take as they grapple with lower student counts: “understanding the new normal for what enrollment might look like in their area,” Eschbacher said.

Districts also must collaborate with their communities to grasp what fewer students will mean for their schools and the kinds of adjustments they need to make.

“We need to acknowledge that these dynamics are bigger than COVID,” he said, “and we need to start having tough conversations with our communities about it.”

Enrollment also fell among white students and students of color, families opting to home-school their children and students pursuing online learning. The state reported the biggest change among white students, with schools educating 7,673 fewer white students this school year than in 2021. American Indian or Alaska native students experienced the largest percentage drop in public school enrollment, with the state recording close to 5% fewer students this past fall than the year before.

Meanwhile, the number of students engaged in homeschooling decreased by more than 1,800 from last year — down to 8,674 kids total, according to state figures. About 30,800 students enrolled in online educational programs this school year, close to 600 students less than the prior year.

“We knew this was coming”

Denver Public Schools — Colorado’s largest school district — shrunk by just over 1,000 students this school year, dropping to an enrollment of 87,864 students in preschool through 12th grade, state data shows.

The district’s projections anticipated the decline, so it wasn’t a surprise to DPS, said Liz Mendez, executive director of enrollment and campus planning for the district.

“We knew this was coming, and it has been for the last six years,” Mendez said. 

Kindergarten enrollment has consistently dwindled in DPS, she added, with the district hitting its peak enrollment in preschool through 12th grade in 2019. Since then, enrollment has continued to decline.

“It is not due to the pandemic,” Mendez said. “The pandemic accelerated our declines for a year, but we have been seeing elementary school totals decline since 2014.”

That was the district’s peak year for elementary school enrollment, which has dropped steadily in the years since, she said. As smaller kindergarten classes moved through the school system, they began to hit middle school in 2020. DPS recorded its largest enrollment for middle school students in 2019, and enrollment began to wane afterward.

Mendez anticipates that the enrollment dips will continue in the foreseeable future, with a variety of factors influencing student counts besides lower birth rates. She pointed to changing demographics, with more young couples and young, single people moving into Denver, pricing families out. Meanwhile, the housing market is also influencing enrollment figures as more people, including retirees, are remaining in their homes and “aging in place.” Whereas older residents might traditionally consider downsizing, the mortgage rate and availability of homes deters them from moving, so they stay put.

The changes to DPS enrollment will likely trigger some adjustments to staffing — both at individual schools and the district’s central office, which already eliminated dozens of positions last year, Chalkbeat Colorado reported.

The district’s budget and school budgets will also be affected by the decrease in students, she noted, while schools may have to re-evaluate the number and kinds of extracurriculars and programs they can offer for students.

Reyna Najera works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school was one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students could participate in remote learning from a school in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It is probably mostly at the individual school level where schools are having to make adjustments as their enrollment declines because as we know, there are many schools in DPS that have struggled with significantly declining enrollment,” Mendez said.

They include not just district-managed schools but also charter schools and innovation schools, which are district-operated schools that can skirt certain components of the tenure law and teachers union contract.

Other DPS schools aren’t feeling the blow of fewer students, Mendez added.

“The declines are not hitting every school equally nor every region equally, so there are some schools that are not experiencing declining enrollment, particularly in areas where we’ve seen more housing development,” she said, citing Central Park and Green Valley Ranch.

State lawmakers will also have their own considerations to make in light of decreasing enrollment, said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project.

“They’re going to have to determine how they’re going to address the overall shortfall in funding for K-12 and determine. Do they want to increase investment in funding even during a time of declining enrollment?” Rainey said.

Much of the funding shortfall stems from the budget stabilization factor — a growing debt the state has owed to schools since the Great Recession hit in 2009. The total of that debt is more than $10 billion, Rainey said, and this school year alone, school funding was cut short by $321 million.

Paying down the budget stabilization factor won’t solve school funding deficits, she noted. To remain competitive with other states, pay teachers more and curb districts’ struggles to attract and retain teachers, lawmakers must pump more money into education so per-pupil funding in Colorado is closer to the national average, Rainey said.

“Those issues don’t go away unless there’s sustainable new revenue that can go into the system,” she said.

Legislators could decide to keep all the money they’ve allocated into K-12 schools from last year’s budget and divert it to paying down the budget stabilization factor, Rainey said. In that case, districts facing declining enrollments would receive less per-pupil funding since much of their funding total is determined by the number of kids they educate. However, some of the funding loss would be offset by the state paying down the budget stabilization factor and pouring more money into the K-12 system, she said.

In another scenario, lawmakers could pull back K-12 funding in light of enrollment being down, which would have a direct impact on districts, Rainey said.

A five-year averaging provision, which calculates funding for a district based on average enrollment over five years, would soften the financial cuts.

“As long as they keep that five-year averaging in place,” Rainey said, “then districts know how to plan for that.”