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CMS, Other Nearby Districts See Drop In Enrollment As Kindergarteners Opt Out

Courtesy of Patty Armstrong
Maggie Armstrong's parents worried about sending her to kindergarten during the pandemic.

 Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the enrollment drop in Catawba County Schools, based on incorrect information provided by the district.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools came in more than 5,000 students below its projections this year, preliminary numbers show. 

The district reports having 142,177 students this year, down 4,700 from the fall count last year. That’s the biggest drop the district has seen in recent memory – and it comes when the district had projected it would grow to more than 147,000 students.

Cabarrus County, Catawba County and Iredell-Statesville Schools also report that their totals are below last year's and below projections.

North Carolina schools traditionally take their official count on the 20th day of school. State officials say they expect to post tallies next week.

Declining birth rates and the growth of charter schools had been taking a toll even before COVID-19 hit, according to Leanne Winner of the North Carolina School Boards Association.

"The majority of our school districts have had declining enrollment numbers for quite a few years," Winner says.

Pandemic Effect?

The pandemic disrupted family lives and school schedules. Gov. Roy Cooper gave public schools the choice of opening in August with all-remote classes or bringing students back in small groups to allow for safe distancing.

Winner says school boards are still trying to figure out how that’s shaping their enrollment.

"The one trend that we are hearing about is that the numbers of students for kindergarten are significantly below projected enrollment for kindergarten," she says.

Catawba County Schools has seen the kindergarten slump even though kindergarteners there have been able to attend school four days a week since August, according to Superintendent Matt Stover. The district, which had about 15,700 students last year, lost about 300 this year.

Credit Catawba County Schools
Catawba County Schools
Catawba County Schools Superintendent Matt Stover

Stover says most of that was anticipated, but some kindergarten parents didn’t want their children’s first experience with school to involve masks and social distancing.

"So they’ve just said, 'No. We’re going to hold them out another year,' " Stover says. "In some cases they’ve chosen maybe a different route – maybe private school or somewhere they can go without a face covering. Or maybe they chose to home-school or maybe they just said, 'You know what? We’re just going to give it another year and see if maybe next year is a little more normal.' "

That raises the question of whether this year’s enrollment decline is permanent, or whether districts that came in low will see a surge of returning students next year. Stover says there’s no way to know, but "my gut tells me that next year our kindergarten class will be larger than what we expect."

Shielded From Staff Cuts

Normally, a significant shortfall in students triggers the state to cut funding for teachers and other staff.  This year, the General Assembly opted not to do that, giving schools more flexibility as they work with the demands of teaching in a pandemic.

Cabarrus County Schools reports a 20th-day count of 32,738 -- down 875 over the previous year.

Iredell-Statesville was at 20,111, down by almost 300.

Gaston and Union counties said they have nothing ready to release.

CMS hasn’t yet posted enrollment breakdowns by school or racial group, and officials didn’t have much to say about the downward trend.

Spokesman Brian Hacker said there’s no way to quantify the reasons, and noted that “each year there is a different trend of either an increase, decrease or staying steady.”

The district saw years of steady growth, peaking at 147,359 K-12 students in 2017. The numbers were virtually flat in 2018 and dropped by about 500 students last year.

The declines would have happened sooner and been more dramatic if not for significant growth in the number of Hispanic students. The latest tally means CMS is down by almost 5,200 students since 2017.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.