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Iowa schools see first enrollment decline in a decade with no way to account for where all students are

Published: Mar. 30, 2021 at 7:13 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Public school enrollment in Iowa is down for the first time in a decade, with around 6,000 fewer students enrolled statewide this school year compared to last.

Districts who are dealing with a decrease in enrollment and are trying to figure out where those students went, but there is no way to account for all of them.

John Speer, the chief administrator for the Grant Wood Area Education Agency, which supports 32 public school districts in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City area.

“You just have X number of students who you no longer have any idea where they are, where they went, or what they’re doing,” Speer said.

The 32 districts that the Grant Wood AEA serves collectively lost around 1,100 students this year. In a normal year, they’d gain 200-600.

“I know schools, all of us we’re asking each other the same question, like where did kids go? Ultimately we think that a lot of them just chose not to enroll for whatever reason and you know unfortunately there are ways that families can do that through home school where they don’t have to notify us,” Nathan Wear, associate superintendent of the Linn-Mar Community School District, said.

Some families may have chosen to home school during the pandemic. The Mid-Prairie Home School Assistance Program saw a whopping 26% uptick in their enrollment this year.

“About 120 students have joined us who were not homeschooling in the year before,” Rachel Kerns, the director of the program, said.

Since Mid-Prairie’s home school program is associated with a district, their enrollment numbers are tracked. However, Iowa allows four types of homeschooling, one of which requires no interaction with a public school or certified teacher. In those cases, families can be off the grid.

Another common belief by administrators is that the August 10 derecho pushed families out of the area.

“We just had several families that you know had to look for other options due to damage to housing,” Wear pointed out.

In the College Community School District, enrollment is down by 114 students, they’ve been doing everything they can to account for them.

“We try to contact that parent or guardian if we’re unable to do that then we’ll move down to the emergency contacts to try and figure out where the student is. In some cases, in very rare cases, we might do a child welfare check you know if we just really can’t find where the student is,” Doug Wheeler, the superintendent at College Community Schools, said.

They’ve found all but two.

Linn-Mar is down 77 students this year, and they’re looking for patterns to try and determine where those students might have gone.

“This is just my best guess but I’d say of the 77 students you know we probably knew where 25 to 30 of them went and the others we did not get notification on,” Wear said.

There’s hope as the pandemic slows that enrollment in the state will track upwards next year, but school funding is based on the enrollment this year, which means some districts will see a gap.

“If 750 of the 1,100 students show up we really won’t get any funding for those students,” Speer said.

It’s something that districts are already planning for. College Community, for example, is going to allow open enrollment next school year.

“We have opened up some open enrollment on a limited basis to sort of try to fill that gap a little bit,” Wheeler said.

There is a chance some who are home-schooling will choose to return to in-person learning next year.

“We have a lot of undecided families and that’s okay. They don’t really have to make that decision until August,” Kerns said.

With a wide range of options be it home school, online, private school, or public school, it’s impossible to account for every student lost in the enrollment downswing with no system in place that crosses all platforms or state lines.

“You know maybe this is something we need to change nationwide and have a better tracking system. I mean each state does it differently and when you’re faced with a pandemic that we’ve never seen before you quickly realize hey we don’t have a tracking system for students like this,” Wear said.

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