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Suburban schools have seen huge drops in white enrollment during the pandemic

American suburban public schools lost more than 5% of their white students in the first year of the pandemic, according to a new analysis from the EdWeek research center found. This drop was more than twice as large as the decline in enrollment among black, Hispanic and Asian students in the suburbs.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics lab and K-12 enrollment expert, said of the overall drop. “Half a percent a year bleeds students.”

In total, the US public school system has lost more than 1.3 million students, or approximately 3% of its total enrollment, in the 2020-21 school year. This represented the largest drop in a single year since World War II. The declines were most pronounced in preschool and kindergarten. Full enrollment data for 2021-22 is not yet available.

The EdWeek research center examined enrollment trends in more than 27,000 schools across the country’s 25 largest metropolitan areas. The sample is derived from an earlier analysis of enrollment data from 2006-07 by Erica Frankenberg, a Penn State professor who wrote the groundbreaking book The Segregation of suburban schools, which the EdWeek research center has since updated; schools that have closed or opened since the original analysis are not included.

The EdWeek research center review found that city schools were losing students from most racial groups at a higher rate than their suburban counterparts.

In the first year of the pandemic, those suburban schools lost about 283,000 white students, compared to about 50,000 Hispanic students, 34,000 black and 10,000 Asian students. Due to the more dramatic decline in white enrollment, the country’s fast-moving suburban schools are now 46% white overall, down two points just a few years ago and down 14 points from 2006-07, according to the analysis.

“We’ve been projecting these demographic changes and the browning of America for decades,” said Sonya Douglass, professor of educational leadership at Teachers College Columbia University, where she is also the founding director of the Black Education Research Collective. “Now it’s here.”

In some districts, the numbers are striking. Public schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, lost more than 5,000 of their approximately 71,000 white students between 2019-20 and 2020-21. This represented a 7% drop in white listings, compared to an overall drop of 5%.

The public school system of about 42,000 students in Henry County, Georgia, meanwhile saw a slight drop of just 1% in overall enrollment in the first year of the pandemic. But that higher figure masked a huge 11% decline among white students, which was nearly offset by 2-3% gains among black, Hispanic and multiracial students.

Neither district responded to Education Week questions.

Sharp drop in enrollment creates ‘shock to the system’

School districts that returned to in-person learning faster and served counties where people were least likely to report consistent mask use saw the strongest rebounds in overall enrollment, according to the Return to Learn. tracking, a project of the American Enterprise Institute.

If this is in fact what is driving racial differences in declining enrollment during the pandemic, it is a perfect example of the concept of “convergence of interests” that is at the heart of critical race theory., said Douglass of Teachers College. The idea essentially holds that efforts to advance the interests of families of color will only last as long as white families see a corresponding benefit for themselves. But when disagreements arise over policies like mask mandates, vaccination requirements, or in-person or remote learning, members of the dominant group are often still inclined to shape the rules to suit their preferences — or leave the system and take their resources elsewhere.

When that results in a sharp drop in enrollment, it’s a “shock to the system” for districts that are much more comfortable growing than shrinking, said Edunomics Lab’s Roza. Layoffs, staff reassignments, school closures and shortened school weeks are just some of the tough political decisions that can follow. But because these steps are often painful and likely to meet resistance, district leaders often drag their feet, tinkering with small changes while burning through cash reserves.

“We call this the ‘first stage freeze.’ It’s like a deer in the headlights,” Roza said. “We’re going to need the districts to be more nimble financially.”

There appears to have been a rebound in enrollment in 2021-2022. Yet the future is murky. The National Center for Education Statistics, for example, projects a slow increase in K-12 enrollment. through the end of the decade, projections that vary wildly from state to state and reflect underlying dynamics such as reduced immigration and slowing pre-pandemic birth rates.

Steps District Leaders Should Take to Address Drops in Enrollment

So what should suburban school district leaders do?

It’s important to have clear eyes on what’s going on and present the big picture to school board members, district staff and community members, Roza said. From there, she recommends that district leaders take important steps, such as modeling a variety of scenarios to consider, introducing processes for mid-year adjustments in the way resources are allocated and the willingness to make tough staffing decisions now to avoid even tougher decisions later. .

But while many suburban school systems have historically focused on trying to attract, retain, and attract middle-class white families due to the perception that their involvement and support is necessary for a strong public education system, this ship may have sailed.

“We haven’t seen it work in many places,” Roza said. “I would say at some point, rather than trying to recruit families, the best thing in the long run is to do a really good job serving the kids you have.”

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