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What's Up With America's Declining Public School Attendance?

Declining enrollment in public schools is becoming an ongoing trend and some are starting to panic. Several factors make this an important issue for education as a whole and often vulnerable families with financial difficulties wind up bearing the brunt of the issue.


Public schools are the front-line defense of education which we make available to everyone. If anyone with the means to home-school their children moves on to other options – where does that leave the remaining students?


In this article, we’ll cover the decline in public school enrollment, why it matters, and what public schools can do to address the problem.


What’s Going on With Public School Enrollment?

1.3 million fewer students appear on public school roll calls compared to when the pandemic first began. While this year saw a slight improvement — a mere 100,000 students — it is still far from prior levels.


Discussions have centered on the overcrowding of public schools for years. Yet, recently, alarms are raised about the phenomenon. New York saw a 9% drop in total enrollment


Another report found 3% of all Michigan students and a staggering 10% of kindergarteners sought other school options in the Fall of 2020. Younger students could potentially intend to return to public schooling later in their education but the implications this has for public schools right now are vital.


Why Does Enrollment in Public Schools Matter?

Budgets for public schools are often tied to their enrollment numbers. If you have more students, you should need more money and, with fewer students, you shouldn’t need as much funding, right?


It’s far more complicated than this considering schools had been crying out for years about how these funding decisions were unfair and not helpful. Now, they have to deal with these decisions under the new assumptions of lower attendance and the need for even less.


Another victim in this could potentially be the student who may receive less-than-ideal education at home or alternative options. Homeschooling absolutely has the power to be just as effective as public schooling but, without much regulation or oversight, it’s hard to know for sure when it happens en masse.


Then there are the students left at public schools. A higher percentage of which are now likely only there because their parents work too hard to home-school them and still don’t make enough money to afford large costs for private institutions.


All told, the students, the institutions, and education in general fail when our public schools start to decline.


What Caused Public School Enrollment to Dwindle?

The 2020 Pandemic is the largest reason for the decline in attendance in public schools. As parents had to acclimate to virtual schooling, many decided to take the plunge to fully educate their children at home.


Between an overwhelming number of violent events at schools, the potential for bullying, or believing public schools offer worse education than the parents, who could blame them? Most are doing what they believe is right for their children but it, unfortunately, equates to being worse for all of us as well.


Other reasons for declining rates according to researchers are:


  • Students dropping out of school at higher rates than they were before the pandemic

  • Lower birth rates lead to more students graduating than starting school


Together these form what they call the “three d’s”


  1. Dropouts

  2. Downward demographics

  3. Deferments from returning


What Can Public Schools Do to Improve Enrollment and Retention?


Public schools have to act if they wish to reverse the trend of dwindling enrollment rates and retaining their current students. There are several ways they might go about this, here are a few fantastic pieces of advice from K12 Insight:


#1 Listen

If you aren’t listening to your parents and students, you aren’t getting the full story of your institution. All the internal reports and studies won’t do nearly as well as a single word of advice from a concerned parent.


Since we operate in a societal pendulum, reactions often swing from one extreme to the next. Up until now, the idea of “helicopter parents” and other well-meaning though overbearing individuals has pervaded education.


While these annoyances were real, these parents are trying to communicate their real needs and desires. If you don’t listen to them, they’ll take their child somewhere that will.


#2 Exit Interviews

Nobody is going to be more truthful with you than they are on the way out the door. Ask your parents who are intent on leaving why they’re doing so and what you could have done differently to make them want to stay.


This doesn’t mean you should convince them to stay — respect their space and choices but let them know you’re interested in why they made them for the benefit of others.


#3 Offer More Options

Parents get excited about innovative offerings for their children and they will view this as a sign of prestige. The more offerings a school has, the more likely parents are to believe it will inspire their child to achieve something great.


If you don’t have the funds to offer a class or the freedom to alter your curriculum the way you’d like, you still have options. Consider how you take advantage of your field trips and assemblies, after-school programs you can start, and other creative options.


This may prevent your school from stagnating and show how much you care about the students within your walls.


Need Some Help Making Your Students Feel Included?

Having traveled throughout the country speaking to groups of primary and secondary students, I pride myself on broadening their understanding of inclusion and diversity. My new book, White Girl Within, tells how I came to terms with my own identity and learned to accept, nurture, and love my true self. Also, my new book doubles as an identity management resource for LGBTQ+ teens, young adults, allies, and simply those with a radically evolved state of being.


Aside from my ability to come and speak on the topic of diversity and inclusion, I have a special offer for bulk orders of my new book to facilitate free, virtual sessions. Let’s work together to help provide your students with the tools to understand, remain educated, know who they are, and learn to love and appreciate their essence while connecting with others.

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