When Enrollment is Declining, How Do We Step Forward?

3 min read
Mar 14, 2018 12:31:01 PM

Across the U.S., America’s school leaders are in the midst of district transformation due to flat or declining enrollment.

Fewer students matriculating into and remaining in a district has a significant, and cascading impact on the health and efficacy of a school system.

And most of the gut-wrenching decisions that follow shrinking enrollment are agonizing.

Consider Detroit Public Schools (DPS).

A decade ago, the district was facing bankruptcy and the state intervened to effectively buy out the DPS debt.

Over the last 10 years, enrollment shrank from nearly 140,000 students to fewer than 50,0001 while it operated under a state-appointed emergency manager. And Detroit is not alone. News outlets report in near daily doses stories of large districts across our nation facing similar circumstances.

Districts were formed with infrastructures ready for growth. After all, it is easier to add staff, key programs, classrooms, and resources when additional dollars from a swelling student population are factored in to the budgeting equation.

Budget constraints are married to declining enrollment and present a host of issues that are never neatly packaged nor simple to address.

The complexities are widespread and are decentralized in the student body and across grades, classrooms, buildings, and legacy financial obligations.

Take the cost of teacher employment, for example. The average national annual salary of a teacher is $56,3834. With the average national cost of one student equating to $12,5094, every 4.5 students that exit a district could cost the district one teacher’s job.

Lower-income areas are seeing increasingly high student exit rates and fewer younger students are entering these same schools. Shifting demographics, migration to the sun belt and growing school options for families are contributing factors to the declining enrollment plaguing schools.

This is all while the percentage of students being home-schooled and Charter school enrollments are steady.

In fact, “Charters have accounted for the entire increase in U.S. public school enrollment since 2006.”2

Some may raise a brow when learning that statistic, but the fact is, declining enrollment is not a new issue. And more importantly, it predates the growth of the charter sector.

It is, however, a contributing factor to the landscape of enrollment today and one that school leaders cannot afford to ignore.

In 2016–17, there [were] more than 6,900 charter schools, enrolling an estimated 3.1 million students. Over the past 10 years, enrollment in charter schools has nearly tripled — from 1.2 million students in 2006–07 to an estimated 3.1 million in 2016–17.

Where should districts turn? How can they find a sustainable balance? How can they make their schools more attractive?

We are not suggesting there is a secret formula to resolve the issue of declining enrollment, but with 74 million children in this country and the child population projected to grown for the foreseeable future3, better policies and planning will be necessary.

Families deserve transparency and equal access to all school options available to their children. Districts need a better way to engage, educate families on enrollment options, and market all they have to offer students.

Enrollment is a much more universal experience than simply registering, and Strategic Enrollment Management is an ongoing, deliberate approach to choice and engagement.

It begins with marketing and outreach (well before enrollment kicks off), transitions to applications and registrations, and continues with family engagement throughout the entire school year in order to retain students, their siblings, and their families — year to year.

Today’s students — and future generations — deserve our action now. It’s time to cross into the new frontier.




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