How one state is tackling declining enrollment numbers

Connecticut's Department of Education is taking a more proactive approach to reporting on and releasing data on attendance during the pandemic.

Though the Connecticut State Department of Education reported on Wednesday a 3% decline in enrollment for the start of the 2020-21 school year, it says that number is consistent with dips from the past five years and does factor in the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sharpest declines in enrollment are happening at the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten levels, which the state says might be due to parents opting to delay their children during the crisis. It also says home schooling has been a factor driving enrollment downward in grades 1-12.

So the Department is Education is taking a number of steps to try to get those numbers back up. One of them is to have updated data available on a monthly basis, rather than once a year. That includes attendance numbers, key to seeing which students – at various grade levels and within certain subgroups – are not in schools.

“We are now collecting more robust, frequent student-level attendance data to help us better identify patterns early on around issues with attendance and participation, especially for our most vulnerable populations,” Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said. “Using these data to pinpoint areas of greatest need, we will proactively work with educators, families and community partners to address the root causes of that absenteeism and disengagement by establishing systems of support to reach all of our students.”

The early reports from September show the hardest hit cadre of students are those from typically underperforming categories, such as English-language learners, special needs students and those who receive free-and-reduced meals. The DOE notes that groups with multiple needs were among the most likely to miss school.

The total number of students who have fallen out of the system is just over 15,000 from 2019 to 2020, according to the report. The state shows a more than 50% drop in pre-K and kindergarten. It also highlighted that more than 3,000 children were being homeschooled, a dramatic rise from the 547 who chose that path last year.

One positive finding from the state is that despite the pivot in most communities to some form of distance learning, students who are enrolled are being able to get online.

“A bright spot we have seen, thanks to the hard work and team effort of our districts and other partners to get kids connected and engaged, is that the number of fully remote students who are disconnected has been declining every week since schools opened – true even as the overall number of fully remote students has grown statewide,” Cardona said.

The goal from the work is to reach those most vulnerable groups. So the DOE has made multiple outreach efforts in those areas, including working the its State Education Resource Center to “build communities of practice and a system of supports for districts that bring together the latest research, national experts, and promising practices.”

In trying to change those downward trends and keep students engaged, the state’s department of education has implemented a number of initiatives, including:

  • Forming an advisory team that handles planning, professional development and symposiums around issues of attendance and enrollment
  • Launching monthly Community of Practice meetings to talk about engagement among students who are distance learning as well as key terms that help support those in underserved areas
  • Providing a professional support series for both districts, students and parents that include a series of webinars on remote learning and attendance, engaging with families while looking at participation and potential lost connections, and how to connect with and listen to vulnerable populations during the pandemic.

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