Public school enrollment dropped by 1.2 million students during the pandemic as students left for other options—or simply left altogether. Attracting and retaining students—something that was a challenge before the pandemic—became even more difficult when schools closed their buildings.
Some school districts never recovered and are permanently closing some of their schools. One district that has successfully addressed this issue is Harnett County Schools, a nearly 20,000-student district in North Carolina.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Harnett County Schools experienced a decline in enrollment consistent with what many other districts were experiencing during that time. When schools closed their buildings, families started looking around for other alternatives. Some students transferred to parochial and charter schools (though many have since come back). Some switched to homeschooling. Some just stopped attending school altogether.
More from DA: Are districts working hard enough to make teaching a more desirable job?
To retain students, and to recruit students who had left back into the district, Harnett County Schools implemented several key strategies. It made changes to improve family engagement, it added a virtual academy, and it designated staff members to personally track down the students who had left school all together to have frank conversations about what it would take to get them to come back.
These strategies worked. By the 2022-23 school year, enrollment was up 3%, or around 600 students, from what it had been during the 2020-21 school year. Here’s what the district did:
1. Pounding the pavement. The district designated staff members as “success coaches.” Their role was essentially dropout prevention. They went out and pounded the pavement to try to find the kids who weren’t showing up for school.
It’s one thing to talk to students about how their grades are going to suffer if they don’t come to school. But consider the realities of what many students were facing—they’re deciding between going to school and working for a paycheck to provide for their family. There were a lot of tough conversations to really get at the heart of the issue and to find out what it would take to get these kids back in school.
For instance, would they consider a virtual option? Or a non-traditional schedule that would fit with their work schedule? This strategic work to a.) find the students and b.) have these earnest conversations about what they needed from the district (not the other way around) to support their education was a game-changer. Once the district knew what these students needed, it took action.
Some students were just one or two credits shy of graduating so the district identified which classes the students needed in order to graduate and it implemented a program where if a student just needed one class, they could come in for just that class and they did not have to stay for the whole day. This strategy was extremely effective in getting students re-enrolled, and in building community—which is invaluable.
2. Reducing language barriers. Outside of English, Spanish is the top language spoken by families in the school district. District leaders were aware that the language barrier was a problem for some students and their families. To break down this barrier district leaders decided to create a program called Hola Harnett, in which they offered a Spanish language course for district employees who wanted to learn conversational Spanish. It included modules focusing on diversity and cultures represented throughout the school district.
The program was a big hit. Teachers were eager to learn Spanish so they could communicate better with the families and students at their schools and help to make them feel welcome and to be able to better support them. The district had 15 educators sign up for the first cohort. This program has been a game changer. It helps employees and students feel more comfortable communicating with each other.
Additionally, the district offers a dual language immersion program and provides a program in which families have 24/7 access to tutoring services in multiple languages. Even the district’s website can be translated into 11 different languages. When students and their families feel welcomed and understood, it goes a long way toward building family engagement and making sure they want to stay in the district. And it provides one more reason for new families to enroll.
3. Moving its enrollment system online. Just before the pandemic, the district had switched to an online enrollment system from Scribbles Software which allowed families to fill out their enrollment forms and submit enrollment requests without physically coming to a school building. This proved to be invaluable during the pandemic because the district was still able to get families enrolled even though school buildings were closed. It put the district in a position to minimize students leaving and it gave parents who were trying to move into the district peace of mind that they’d be able to get their child enrolled.
When it comes to attracting and retaining students, convenience and accessibility for families are key components of enrollment and retention. This initiative was an important piece of the district’s overall work to support its families. Plus, the online enrollment system allowed staff members to process enrollments a lot more quickly which was also appreciated by families.
4) Adding a virtual school. Harnett County Schools already offered a robust suite of programs prior to the pandemic. But the pandemic created another opportunity: the district started a virtual school. During the 2020-2021 school year, students were provided the option of attending school in-person or attending the virtual school. Nearly 200 students enrolled during the height of the pandemic, and many – around 125 – have remained enrolled at that school. This offering also prompted some students who had switched to homeschooling to re-enroll.
Attracting and retaining students can be a challenge—even during non-pandemic times. One of the most important things a district can do to keep or grow its enrollment is to be partners with their families. Communicate with them. Make processes easy for them. Welcome them. Speak their language. And make it understood that you care so much about their child’s education you will literally track that student down to see how you can help them succeed.
Jermaine White is the assistant superintendent for student support services at Harnett County Schools in North Carolina. Bridget Jones is the director of client success for Scribbles Software.