Here’s what school districts can do to address K-12 enrollment declines

Districts must take action with a three-pronged approach by identifying ways to improve service delivery, understanding where to cut operating costs, and engaging stakeholders regularly.
Byron Adams
Byron Adams

Across the U.S. in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, public school districts are facing significant – and worrisome – student enrollment declines. Since the COVID pandemic started in 2020, Los Angeles Unified School District has lost 8.1% of its students and Chicago Public Schools has lost 8.9% of its students. Recent forecasts indicate those declines are accelerating.

At the same time, districts are facing rising costs. But lower enrollment numbers mean they are at risk of losing funding because budgets are typically correlated with the number of students, despite budgetary needs. And so, K-12 student enrollment demands urgent attention.

While there is a complex set of factors influencing declining enrollment, including lower birth rates, rising property values, increased rental rates and migration away from cities – and no easy solutions to the problem – there are a few key strategies leaders in education can employ as they approach this challenge. Districts must immediately take action with a three-pronged approach by identifying ways to improve service delivery, understanding where to reduce operating costs and engaging stakeholders regularly, especially families and students.

Identify ways to improve the education experience

In many cases, the public school system is still the top choice for parents, yet overall enrollment numbers are still declining. We learned that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this trend after federal government data reported a 13% drop in pre-K and kindergarten enrollment between fall 2019 and fall 2020. Many of these students still haven’t enrolled and the challenge now is understanding what actions will help districts attract them.

As school systems learn more about the specific challenges and barriers to enrollment in their communities – such as health and safety or academic quality – they will better understand which precise actions to take. Districts deliver all kinds of services, including educating and feeding students, providing individualized support to those with special needs and offering ongoing training to teachers. But too often, they don’t receive stakeholder feedback on whether processes are working.

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This was apparent in the early days of the pandemic when a number of districts did not have insight into the virtual learning experience from stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers and administrators. Adopting technology to gather and understand feedback and then act and improve services is critical, not only for preparing for the next crisis but for continuing to raise the bar for providing excellent, equitable and inclusive experiences for the entire education system.

Understand where to reduce operating costs

One of the consequences of lower student enrollment numbers is decreased budgets. Districts are already being forced to cut spending, but a critical lever for driving higher enrollment is making the right budget decisions and building buy-in from the community.

For example, technology can increase efficiencies and improve student learning outcomes, but certain solutions are expensive with little or no value added. Outdated tech may also create a burden for staff with additional administrative tasks. Surveying students and staff about technology utilization can help districts make high-impact improvements and get the most bang for their buck.

Engage stakeholders regularly

Many districts are already actively hosting listening tours, conducting focus groups and surveying parents, students and staff as a regular practice. They can bolster these efforts by listening more consistently and embarking on a re-engagement campaign for students and families who can be brought back to the district.

Listening more consistently means opening multiple channels for feedback that include active efforts, such as administered surveys, focus groups and listening tours – as well as passive efforts, like always-on surveys and monitoring social media and phone calls to district service centers.

Since the pandemic began and even in the years prior, school systems have had more community members relying on phone calls and social media as their primary channels for crisis communication and feedback. Districts struggled to keep up with these changing communication preferences since their systems weren’t designed to be agile and customizable to fit evolving needs.

The events of the past couple years have made it clear that modernizing technology and streamlining systems can help districts engage their communities and address lower student enrollments. Our future depends on it.

Byron Adams is the K-12 Education Strategy Leader at Qualtrics. Before joining Qualtrics, he worked in network leadership roles at Boston Public Schools and the Noble Network of Charter Schools.

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