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Districts on the hunt for 3,000 missing students

Schools seek to reconnect with families following enrollment losses

All districts – Where did they all go? 

That’s what educators across Kent County and statewide have been trying to find out since learning of a dramatic drop in K-12 enrollment this fall – by some 53,000 students across Michigan and 3,000 in Kent ISD public schools. 

Local districts large and small have taken hits to their student counts – and their budgets – as pandemic learning scattered families looking for options. Many parents held their children back from kindergarten, decided to home-school them, transferred them to non-public schools or moved out of the area or state. A good many students have simply dropped off the radar – missing in action from their former schools.

So district leaders have gone into action themselves to try to find those missing students, make sure they’re being educated and maybe even persuade them to return. Some students already have, now that more schools are opening classrooms full-time or in hybrid plans. 

“We’ve been blowing up phones since September,” said Aaron Roussey, principal of Grand Rapids’ Union High School, which has seen some students return this semester. “Not just ‘Why are you not at Union?’ but ‘Hey, how are you doing?’”

See related story: How one school reached out to former students

Ron Gorman, GRPS deputy superintendent

In Grand Rapids Public Schools, which saw a fall enrollment drop of about 875 students from projections after opening in all-virtual format, principals and other staff recently contacted as many students as they could in a “We Want You Back” campaign. Nearly 200 families said they would return their students either this semester, next fall or when schools are 100 percent in-person, said Deputy Superintendent Ron Gorman.

GRPS opened schools to hybrid in-person learning this semester along with the virtual option, which brought some families back, Gorman said. But he insisted that boosting the district’s per-pupil state funding wasn’t the only motive of the two-week campaign.

”The folks who are serving our kids every day didn’t get into this work for a paycheck. They got into it because they really care about kids,” Gorman said. “When those students leave, we want to know where they went. We want to know if they’re OK, if they’re safe and getting an education.”

Enrollment numbers are in ‘full-time equivalents.’ Not every student attends every school or program full time, leading to the partial enrollment indicated in the decimals. (Courtesy Kent ISD)

Losses across County and State 

GRPS was far from alone. Eighteen of the 20 public school districts in Kent County lost students this fall compared to fall 2019, including some 360 in Forest Hills and 216 in Rockford, according to Kent ISD. (Byron Center saw a gain of 54 students and Sparta remained stable.) But as a percentage of their previous enrollments, smaller districts were hit hard too. Cedar Springs and Lowell lost more than 5 percent of their students, while Kelloggsville experienced the largest drop of any district at 6.16 percent.

Though a temporary change in the state funding formula softened the financial blow for many districts, GRPS still suffered a budget shortfall of over $1 million, and almost all districts had reason for concern, said Ron Koehler, interim superintendent of Kent ISD.

Ron Koehler, Kent ISD interim superintendent

“No district that loses kids does so without trying to figure out why, because the per-pupil funding that follows the child is their lifeblood, and their fixed costs remain the same if five leave, 85 leave or 185 leave,” said Koehler, noting the losses are spread across grade levels.

At the state level, the unaudited loss of some 53,000 students from public schools prompted a December op-ed by State Superintendent Michael Rice. After accounting for losses due to a decade-long decline, 13,000 fewer kindergartners and an increase of 14,000 home-schooled students, that still left about 13,000 students unaccounted for – “a significant concern,” he said.

The “granular work” of finding those missing children must be done locally, Rice wrote. But he also said state law needs to require a count of home-schooled children, to help determine “more precisely the number of children who are not being educated at all.” 

Koehler agreed, calling Michigan “one of the most lenient states” in its home-school regulations. While parents are required to register with the state if they want their child to have public-school services, he said, “Most simply go off the grid and nobody knows if their kids are getting an education or not.”

Indeed, this school year has seen 291 students reported as home-schooled in Kent ISD, more than double the 116 reported in 2019-20, said Mark Larson, attendance officer and truancy coordinator. But not all districts report their home-schooled students nor do all parents, he cautioned. For many students, he said, “There’s no way to verify there’s any learning happening.”  

Sometimes ‘No Luck’ Finding Students      

The task of tracking where students went is formidable and hampered by lack of a central database, Larson said. The receiving schools don’t always ask the student’s former district for records and some states never do, he said. 

His department asked local districts to identify students they’ve not located but the response was “pretty spotty,” he said, adding the number of truancy referrals is also down. Still, his department has tried to help local districts. He estimated they’ve located perhaps 50 to 60 students through residence records, government cash assistance rolls, family contacts, or “just knocking on the door.” 

“Sometimes we just have no luck tracking them down,” he said, adding the goal is “not to punish or harm families, but just to make sure students are in school.”

Home-schooling is likely a major factor in the loss of students, Kent ISD data analysts say. So is a drop of nearly 700 students in kindergarten, the biggest loss of any grade level. Said Koehler, “Unfortunately, kindergarten isn’t mandatory in Michigan and I’m sure that prompted many with COVID concerns to decide Hector had best stay home this year.”

‘We want to know if they’re OK, if they’re safe and getting an education.”

— Ron Gorman, GRPS deputy superintendent

GRPS’ Gorman said he doesn’t blame families for holding their children back. “Think about your first school experience and you’re opening up a laptop. The whole school experience, we know that it entails so much more than content.”

Percentage-wise, the largest drop was a decrease of 13 percent among special-education students served by local districts. Officials had anticipated a decline in students with disabilities attending in person, especially those with “significant medical concerns and/or complex needs,” said Kirsten Myers, Kent ISD director of special education. Also, many young adult students were unable to return because work-based learning opportunities were reduced due to COVID safety precautions at workplaces, Myers said. 

“We are encouraged that with the vaccination and in learning multiple and creative ways to support students and families through the pandemic that many students will continue to return yet this year or next fall,” she added.  

Most Grades Take a Hit   

Countywide, districts also saw a sharp drop in seventh-graders. A Kent ISD analysis of enrollment losses by grade level showed a decline of 588 students, an 8 percent drop from fall 2019. 

Middle school is generally a time when many parents transfer their students to other schools, officials note. With so many schools teaching remotely this year, some parents may have sent their children to face-to-face charter or private schools, because the course content is more difficult “and the hormones are such that the students become a little more difficult to manage,” Koehler said.   

Differing levels of loss can also be attributed to the different numbers of students in each grade level as well as the availability of options, said Kevin Philipps, Kent ISD assistant superintendent of administrative services. The sharp drop in K-7 enrollments suggests more students opted for home-schooling and transfers to private schools, he said. 

‘Sometimes we just have no luck tracking them down.’

– Mark Larson, Kent ISD attendance officer and truancy coordinator

Conversely, the relatively better enrollment in grades 8-12 reflects the fact most charter and some parochial schools are K-8 only, and that high schoolers are less likely to change schools being so close to graduation, he said. 

While the kindergarten drop and home-schooling are likely the largest factors in the decrease, it’s impossible to account for all the students, said Mark Maynard, a data services staffer who analyzed the numbers. 

“The difficult part of this is that we don’t know what we don’t know,” Maynard said. “Some students are just missing and we don’t know what happened, and most likely never will.”

Suburban Schools Looking Too  

Rockford Public Schools made a concerted effort to find the 200-plus students lost from a year ago. Officials sent a survey to those students’ families asking why they didn’t return, where they are attending and whether they plan to come back next school year. 

Of those who replied, the majority still live in the community and most of their students were either being home-schooled or transferred to parochial or private schools offering in-person instruction, said Mike Ramm, assistant superintendent of instruction. Rockford opened the year with all-virtual instruction and now offers a choice of virtual or in-person. 

‘We want to get every single kid back that we can, because we feel the product we have here connects with all types of kids.’

– Mike Ramm, Rockford assistant superintendent

While some objected to the requirement that their children wear masks, the most common reason given was a desire for a set instructional model, as changing virus conditions forced Rockford and other districts to change their learning plans accordingly.

“They wanted the control of consistency, and were worried about moving back and forth with modalities,” Ramm said. 

About one-third of the families said they plan to return their students next fall, while another third were undecided, he said. The district will monitor those families to see what they need and will incorporate this year’s innovations into creative, flexible learning plans, he added: “We want to get every single kid back that we can, because we feel the product we have here connects with all types of kids.”

Eric Alcorn, Kelloggsville auxiliary services director

At Kelloggsville Public Schools, staffers tried to reach missing families by email and phone, said Eric Alcorn, auxiliary services director. When that failed, student services directors went to the last known addresses for the students’ families. He attributed the district’s 147-student decline directly to the pandemic.

“When families are having health and safety concerns, general fear, unstable employment and living conditions, it’s hard to maintain a consistent learning environment,” he said. “We want to let those families that we have not been able to reach know that we are here and welcome them back.”

Vaccines Hold Hope for Returns 

At GRPS, the fact more than 180 students’ families said they’d be returning eventually was “pretty good news,” Gorman said. Yet that left several hundred who either don’t plan to return or are unaccounted for. 

Close to 100 of the 800-plus missing students had moved out of state, he said. Others went to nearby charter schools, suburban districts or moved to other parts of the state, he said. Only 16 parents reported home-schooling them, and there were “not that many” who went to parochial or private schools, he added. 

The district will stay in touch with families who have left but are considering returning, along with trying to engage students who have been inconsistently logging on, Gorman said. He hopes more will return soon to opened classrooms and that vaccinations will bring more families back as well. 

“At least now we know there’s probably a light at the end of the tunnel,” Gorman said. “Will next school year look different than this school year? Gosh I hope so.”

Phil de Haan contributed to this report

See related story: How one school reached out to former students

Charters and non-public trends 

While Kent ISD officials report a sizable increase in home-schooled students, they found charter schools have not drawn many away from public districts this school year. Of 22 local charters, only five showed enrollment increases over last year, according to figures compiled by Kent ISD.    

Catholic and Christian schools reported modest gains. Kent County Catholic schools are serving 233 pre-K-12 students who were enrolled in public schools last year, an increase from 145 in 2019-20, said spokesman Greg Ghering. 

Grand Rapids Christian Schools enrolled 63 new students from public schools and 16 from charters, but the total number of new students was about the same as in previous years, said Chief Financial Officer Jim Primus. He said he sensed some new families were either disillusioned with their public schools’ handling of the pandemic or didn’t want to deal with a choice of learning options. Christian and Catholic schools have been mostly in-person all year. 

Still, the Christian schools are facing many of the same enrollment issues as public schools, Primus added, with pre-kindergarten numbers “way down” and over 100 students on suspended contracts to do home-schooling this year. 

Reported by Phil de Haan

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio

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