DENVER | The number of Colorado public school students dropped this school year — for the second time in the last three years.
Aurora schools were a mixed picture.
The first drop was in the fall of 2020, just after the pandemic had started. Last school year, enrollment seemed to recover slightly, though it remained below pre-pandemic levels. This fall, student enrollment again decreased to near 2020 levels, with a total of 883,264 students in preschool through 12th grade.
In Aurora, enrollment decreased slightly in the Cherry Creek School District and increased in Aurora Public Schools.
The state counted 52,948 students enrolled this school year in Cherry Creek, a decrease of 610 students or 1.14%.
In Aurora Public School 39,051 students were enrolled this school year, an increase of 600 students or 1.56%.
Previously, student enrollment had increased statewide for about three decades, according to a Colorado Department of Education press release.
The Colorado Department of Education published enrollment data Jan. 18 from the fall’s official student counts.
According to the state, the largest declines this time were in kindergarten and middle school grades.
Year-over-year kindergarten enrollment declined in October 2022 by 2,373 students, or by 3.8%. The number of full-day kindergarten students in 2022 was 58,371, compared with 61,989 in 2019 before the pandemic. Preschool enrollment did go up in 2022 and is closer to its pre-pandemic levels.
Based on racial and ethnic breakdowns, white students had the largest change in raw numbers with a 7,673-student decline. Based on a percentage change, American Indian and Alaska natives had the largest decrease with 4.7% fewer students than in fall 2021.
Schools enrolled more students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty, last fall compared with the fall of 2021, though the number is still lower than in 2019. But with lower overall statewide enrollment, the percentage of students living in poverty out of all students was roughly the same last fall, 39.9%, as it was in 2019.
Families had to fill out forms this school year to qualify for free lunch. During the past two years, because of federal waivers, all students could eat school meals for free.
Among individual districts, a similar pattern emerged where most had proportions of students qualifying for subsidized lunches going up from last year, but not quite reaching 2019 levels.
However, a handful of districts had more students last fall qualifying for subsidized meals than they did in 2019. The proportion grew, for example, in District 49 to 34% from 32% pre-pandemic; in Jeffco schools to 32.3% from 31%; and in Adams 12 schools to 45.2% from 39%.
The number of students identified as English language learners held steady from the past year, though it still represents a big decrease from students identified pre-pandemic.
The overall enrollment decrease includes fewer students home-schooled and fewer students in online schools. A total of 8,674 students were counted as home-schooled in October, down from 10,502 in fall 2021. This year’s home-schooled count now nears the 7,880 enrolled in 2019.
In online schools, the state counted 30,799 students enrolled this year — 583 fewer than in 2021. Colorado only has limited data on private school enrollment.
Enrollment dropped in more than half of the school districts in the state.
In the metro area, that included the Mapleton School District, which until this year had held steady or grown while other districts lost students. In the metro area, the second largest percentage decrease in enrollment was in the Adams 14 school district, which counted 5,692 students, down from 6,114 last fall, and from more than 7,000 students in 2018.
While Adams 14 enrollment has steadily decreased over the years, the state’s orders last May to reorganize the district may have steepened the decline. It was the first time the state exercised its authority to order a reorganization, which could end in closure of schools or neighboring districts taking control of parts of the district.
School districts receive funding based on the number of students they enroll, so a decline in the number of students can also mean a drop in funding. Several school districts, including Denver, have been considering school closures. Jeffco voted to close 16 elementary schools at the end of this school year.
The Aurora Public Schools district, on the other hand, reported an increase in enrollment. Because of new housing development in its eastern sector, officials there had already expected their student counts to start increasing soon, but were unsure when it would happen.
Despite that expectation, Aurora officials have said it wouldn’t resolve the district’s enrollment and facilities issues. Uneven housing patterns have prompted school closures closer to the Denver boundary, while also requiring the district to construct new buildings near developments to the east.
Charter schools authorized under the state’s Charter School Institute grew enrollment slightly. Statewide, all charter schools enrolled about 2,500 more students than they did a year earlier, a 1.8% increase.
The state also recorded more students in state detention centers.
Other areas showing growth include Greeley-Evans District 6 and School District 27J based in Brighton, both north of Denver, District 49 in Colorado Springs, and rural parts of the state.
Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at [email protected].
— Sentinel Colorado staff writer Carina Julig contributed to this report