Julia Greco of Ellisville pulled her daughter and son from the Rockwood School District to homeschool after feeling frustrated with virtual learning last spring.
“I felt it was really well organized, but it was a lot harder to manage a 6- and 9-year-old than I thought it would be,” Greco said. “I felt if I took over and taught them for a year, we could have a more joyful time during a really scary thing happening in the world.”
Public school enrollment across Missouri is down more than 28,000 students this fall compared to the 2019-2020 school year. The majority of the decrease came from preschool and kindergarten classes, and the drop was bigger in areas such as St. Louis city and county, where most districts started the year fully virtual.
“We’re exploring whether those students shifted to homeschooling, if they’re now attending a private school that may be offering onsite learning opportunities unlike their public school, or have they simply just not enrolled yet,” said Mallory McGowin, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The historic 3.2% statewide drop, to 888,815 students in public preschool through 12th grade, follows annual rate decreases of less than 1% since reaching 921,592 students in 2007. Enrollment in public preschool fell by 31%, and kindergarten by nearly 10% across Missouri.
Six districts in the St. Louis region experienced enrollment declines of more than 10% — Affton, Ferguson-Florissant, Maplewood-Richmond Heights, Normandy, Riverview Gardens and the Special School District of St. Louis County.
Enrollment determines government funding for schools, but state law allows public districts to use the higher attendance count from the previous two years in its funding formula. That means steep budget cuts and layoffs could hit next year if districts don’t lure students back in 2021, McGowin said.
Rockwood School District, the St. Louis region’s largest, fell by 1,118 students this year to a total of 20,609. The district started the year virtually and has been gradually returning students to buildings in the last month, after months of protests from a group of parents pushing the district to resume in-person learning.
Greco helped build a support group of about 75 families across Rockwood who chose homeschooling this year for stability or health reasons. Originally, her plan was for homeschooling to be a temporary fix during the coronavirus pandemic. But the family has grown accustomed to the flexibility with schedules and their adventures in cooking, gardening and hiking.
Every district in St. Louis city and county experienced a decline in enrollment this year with one exception — Lindbergh School District, which added 13 students when preschoolers are included. The district had a decrease of 62 students from January in kindergarten through 12th grade, with more than half coming from kindergarten.
Maplewood-Richmond Heights experienced the highest rate of student drop-off in the region, with enrollment down 12% from last year. The loss of 169 students comes almost entirely from the indefinite closing of the district’s preschool program, which previously enrolled 150 students.
At least 44 students in the district switched to homeschooling, according to Vince Estrada, director of student services, who expects a majority to return when the district reopens its school buildings.
“A lot of those families wanted to stay in touch and continue to be plugged in,” Estrada said.
In Kirkwood, where residents in April voted down a bond issue to build a new elementary school, enrollment fell by 2.3%, a reversal of pre-pandemic projections of 2.3% growth. Enrollment fell 2% even in Wentzville, the state’s fastest-growing district in previous years. The district dropped by 326 students from last year, to a total of 17,447.
Several school districts around the Lake of the Ozarks grew this fall, lending credence to the theory that some families moved into vacation homes for the school year. Another bright spot in the state data came from the Dunklin School District in Herculaneum, which added 213 students this year to reach a total of 1,702.
Sitting out preschool, kindergarten
Children are not required to attend kindergarten in Missouri, so some families might be waiting out the pandemic before enrolling their children, district leaders said. Others said they chose private schools for the option to attend in person.
The 34 schools in the Lutheran Elementary School Association have maintained stable enrollments or grown this year, CEO Sue Nahmensen said.
“The No. 1 reason is families looking for an in-person experience,” Nahmensen said. “We’re hoping that if these parents experience the Lutheran school difference, they will recognize the value of keeping their kids in our schools.”
Julie Kearbey transferred her three children from an elementary school in the Ladue district to St. Paul’s Lutheran in Des Peres, with tentative plans to stay beyond this school year.
“They’re thriving,” Kearbey said. “I’ve never seen my kids so excited to go back to school.”
Enrollment in the 10 largest Catholic grade schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis decreased to 5,024 this year from 5,174 last year. Only two of the schools gained students over last year — St. Gerard Majella in Kirkwood grew to 404 students from 398, and St. Patrick in Wentzville enrolled 393 from 380, according to John Schwob, director of pastoral planning with the Archdiocese.
Catholic high schools fared better with a 1% uptick among the 10 largest schools, led by St. Dominic in O’Fallon, Missouri, which grew to 841 from 748 students in the last year.
Three Catholic elementary schools, Most Holy Trinity in north St. Louis, Christ Light of the Nations in Spanish Lake and St. Joseph in Manchester, closed permanently last spring because of financial losses from the pandemic.
At least two districts, St. Louis Public Schools and Normandy Schools Collaborative, are likely to close or consolidate schools before next year. SLPS put its consolidation plans on hold last spring when the pandemic hit. The criteria for closing schools will be based on the five years of enrollment data before 2020, according to Kelvin Adams, superintendent.
In Normandy, “the pandemic, historic birth rates, and other factors have contributed to enrollment declines below desired levels per building,” according to a report Monday from the district’s board meeting.
The district’s enrollment fell by 316 students this year to a total of 2,770 students, which is 15% below its three-year average.
Enrollment in SLPS fell by 1,865 students, more than any other district in the state. At 19,436 students in preschool through high school, the district is down 14% from its three-year average.
Preschool enrollment in SLPS fell by about 700. Statewide, there are nearly 9,000 fewer 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in public preschools compared to last year, raising concerns about long-term consequences.
“Our data has always shown that kids in pre-K outpace students who have never been in preschool,” Adams said.
The district plans to start an “aggressive” marketing campaign in March to lure families back, along with a new catch-up program for students next summer, Adams said.