Enrollment in Denver public schools is expected to decline 6% by 2025 – nearly double the rate of decline district officials predicted before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new analysis presented to the school board on Monday.
Primary school enrollment, which has been declining for several years, will continue to decline, according to the analysis. But for the first time, officials are predicting a drop to the college level as smaller cohorts of students progress through classes.
Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district, serving approximately 90,000 students this year. That’s already down from more than 93,000 students last year – a drop in enrollments of more than 3.5% year-over-year due to the pandemic.
Declining enrollment can have huge impacts on a district. Colorado school districts are funded per student. Fewer students means less state money to run the district. Declines in enrollment can also lead to controversial decisions about whether to close or consolidate schools, a conversation that Denver School Board members say is one to come.
The two main factors behind the decline in listings in Denver are falling birth rates and rising house prices that are pushing families out of the city and preventing new ones from moving there.
But the pandemic has exacerbated the losses, especially at the preschool and kindergarten levels. Many young children who left for homeschool or private preschool did not return to apply for a place in a public preschool or kindergarten class this fall.
“There is a chance, and I hope, that maybe all of a sudden tons of kids will show up for next year’s October count that we didn’t anticipate,” Sara said. Walsh, district planning director, referring to Colorado’s annual student count that happens in October. “But I think right now we think the enrollment drops will be pretty big over the next five years.”
The declines will be most pronounced in the northwest, southwest and north-central parts of the city, according to the analysis. The three areas are traditionally working-class neighborhoods that have lost families as housing prices have risen, leading to a significant drop in school enrollment.
So many elementary schools in Southwest Denver have seen declines that their enrollment took up an entire page in the district analysis document. Grant Ranch ECE-8 in the South Marston neighborhood lost 57% of its students from 2016 to 2020, from 361 students to 157.
Schools are funded per student, and those with fewer than 300 students struggle to hire enough staff to maintain strong programming. Under-enrolled schools often cannot afford to hire two teachers per grade, sometimes resulting in large class sizes or combined class sizes.
Walsh said it was particularly striking to see a drop in enrollment at elementary schools, which not so long ago had waiting lists of students clamoring to enter.
“These are really strong schools with amazing programs that families love, but the number of children living in the area continues to decline,” she said.
There are indications that declining enrollment will also change the demographics of the district. Denver’s public schools have already gotten whiter and richer over the past decade, and this year’s kindergarten class is whiter and richer than this year’s ninth grade class.
This year’s ninth grade class is 22% white, while this year’s kindergarten class is 32% white. The percentage of black students has remained stable over the years, but the percentage of Hispanic students has declined while the percentage of white students has increased.
Likewise, 65% of this year’s ninth grade students are eligible for subsidized school meals, an indicator of low family income, while only 56% of this year’s kindergarten children qualify.