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News / Northwest

SPS to investigate declining enrollment using new grant

By Denisa R. Superville, The Seattle Times
Published: April 15, 2024, 7:43am

SEATTLE — The Seattle school system lost nearly 4,000 students in about five school years, and the district’s most optimistic projections do not forecast a significant rebound in the next decade.

Now, SPS is hoping that a $100,000 state grant to conduct a survey and do other market research will help it understand why families are opting out — or not enrolling their children in its schools in the first place — and find ways to attract and keep families and students.

Student enrollment will be a top-of-mind issue for many public school districts over the next decade. Nationally, public elementary and secondary school enrollment is expected to fall from its 2020 levels 4% by 2030, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a national clearinghouse for information on the country’s public and private schools. The state’s public school enrollment is expected to drop 5.4% in 2030 from its 2023 enrollment.

A confluence of factors — from lower birthrates to migration — are playing a role. Private school and alternative options, from online to home-schooling, have also grown since the pandemic.

Fewer students often means districts get less money from the state. It also means that districts will have to make big decisions that could lead to cuts in staff and academic and enrichment program offerings. Seattle is already having some of those discussions as it tries to close a $104 million to $111 million deficit for the upcoming school year as well as a deeper structural deficit that’s, in part, tied to declining enrollment.

Where are the students?

In the 2018-19 school year, nearly 53,000 students attended Seattle Public Schools. Just a few academic years later, in 2023-24, that number had dropped to about 49,000, according to the district.

Enrollment could further plummet within a decade — from 42,401, on the low end, up to 48,589 on the high end, based on district projections.

Fred Podesta, the district’s chief operations officer, said SPS will likely use the grant, secured in this year’s legislative session, to understand why it was getting fewer kindergarten- and elementary-age kids.

While one factor is fewer births, it’s also the case that a smaller percentage of those children are enrolling in SPS than in the past, Podesta said. The biggest factor in the district’s enrollment decline is that the incoming kindergarten class is smaller than the outgoing 12th-grade class, he said.

“There’s just fewer kids in Seattle,” he said. “That’s why we’ve been forecasting this for a while. But the ratio of students who end up in our system to births in King County is not as tight as we used to be. Our market share of new kids is not the same as it used to be.”

There are lots of questions. A big one is whether the children are still in the city by the time they’re ready to attend school. That’s a bit of a black hole for the district because it doesn’t yet have a relationship with those parents, Podesta said.

With high housing prices and flexible working arrangements, parents may be choosing to leave the city for areas with lower housing costs, he said.

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“Are they going to suburban King County districts or outside of King County altogether? Or are families who have children leaving the city before their kids are ready to enroll?” he said. “We don’t understand that.”

The district can and does track where students reenroll if they leave SPS for another district or academic option within the state, Podesta said. The grant will also give SPS officials an opportunity to find out why those families are leaving. Last year, online schooling was the most common single reason students gave for transferring out of the system. Students also left for private schools.

“We can dig a little deeper into the why because we certainly would want to understand any barriers or anything that would affect how we think about the services we provide,” Podesta said.

While SPS has an enrollment team, the district will probably hire a market research firm to help. Data collection could include a general phone survey to get parents’ impressions of the school system and whether they plan to enroll their children in SPS. The district also plans to work with the city government and city-based child care providers.

“I think this is going to be more broad-brush market research than we typically do,” Podesta said. “That’s why it’s nice — because we’re not really built that way. … As a public school system, we tend to get ready to serve the students that present themselves, and [we] know less about the students that never do.”

Work will begin in earnest this summer after budget discussions wind down. A first draft of the report could be ready by the end of the calendar year. That will give the district time to review, analyze and digest the information before submitting a report on the findings to the legislature next summer.