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School Districts Across North Carolina Lost Students This Year, With Kindergarten Down 15%

Five-year-old Kailyn McCain of Huntersville stayed out of kindergarten this year because her mother worries about pandemic conditions.
Jarrett McCain
Five-year-old Kailyn McCain of Huntersville stayed out of kindergarten this year because her mother worries about pandemic conditions.

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools revealed that this year’s enrollment was down by almost 7,000 students, the drop of almost 5% seemed shocking. Officials had suspected the all-remote opening would send some families in search of other options, but they didn’t anticipate that many.

A state report shows CMS was not a fluke. Virtually every district lost significant numbers of students this year, based on a year-to-year comparison of the first month of school. Across the state, average daily membership in school districts was down 5%, or 71,000 students. CMS was right in the middle of the pack.

Surrounding districts lost students as well. Gaston County dropped almost 6%, which is above the state average. The others ranged from a decrease of less than 2% in Iredell-Statesville Schools to just over 4% in Union County.

Kindergarteners Stayed Home

The biggest hit came from kindergarteners who didn’t show up. In all of North Carolina’s school districts combined, the number of kindergarteners dropped 15%, a loss of about 15,700 children over the previous year.

Katrina McCain with her 5-year-old daughter, Kailyn.
Jarrett McCain
Katrina McCain with her 5-year-old daughter, Kailyn.

Parents like Katrina McCain of Huntersville worried about what school would look like for her daughter Kailyn even if in-person classes were available.

"I guess in my head I envisioned, like, masks and face shields and teachers that didn’t want to hold my child’s hand or didn’t want to give my child a hug in the morning or was very cold and stand-offish out of just fear," McCain said.

The big question now is: Where did students go, and will they stay there?

Most Charter Schools Grew

One answer is: Charter schools. Those are publicly funded schools that report to independent boards. For several years now, North Carolina’s charter enrollment has been climbing while school districts level off or shrink. Even before the pandemic, this was playing out against what some people have called a national baby bust.

State demographer Mike Cline tracks North Carolina birth rates, which started declining with the Great Recession of 2008. Those children are school-age now.

"There’s really been a flattening of that school-age population, and I anticipate that to continue through 2025 -- and now with the pandemic possibly a little bit longer than that," Cline says.

This year, total charter school enrollment grew by about 8,500 students, or 7.3%. Even the number of kindergarteners in charter schools grew.

Some of the most striking exceptions were Charlotte-area charter schools that opened in all-remote mode. This summer, the local board that runs four schools operated by the for-profit Charter Schools USA bucked the national company's trend and kept kids at home in August.

Those schools logged some of North Carolina's biggest year-to-year losses among charter schools: 24% at Concord Lake STEAM Academy, 15% at Cabarrus Charter Academy and 14% at Langtree Charter Academy. Iredell Charter, the fourth school in the group, dropped 3%.

Role Of Private Schools Unclear

Private schools are an unknown. It takes months longer for the state to post enrollment data from them, and the agency that tracks private schools declined to talk about any emerging trends. It’s not even clear that private schools could absorb thousands more students — most of the established ones are already at capacity, with waiting lists.

The missing kindergarteners may just be sitting this year out — learning from home or in small "pods" while planning to enroll after the pandemic abates. Attendance isn't mandatory until age 7.

ThePublic School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based advocacy and research group, has been tracking the trends.

Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina
Public School Forum of North Carolina
Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina

"I do believe that some families made choices to either wait to send their students a year later, or to have school at home," said Executive Director Mary Ann Wolf. "My understanding is they don’t have to register in home school at the kindergarten age."

Wolf says she and many others are watching how that plays out.

"I do wonder, right, what will that look like next year? You know, will we have a huge kindergarten class?" Wolf said. She noted that some may enroll as first-graders next year and some as kindergarteners.

McCain, the Huntersville mom, says her daughter is in a co-op this year, but she hopes to get Kailyn into a new CMS language immersion magnet school that’s opening near their home in August.

"Even looking into next school year it’s still very uncertain, but these children need some stability," McCain said.

Making Decisions About 2021

That leads to another pandemic first: This is the season when families make decisions about magnet, private and charter schools for August of 2021. This time last year, thousands of parents and kids were packing choice fairs in big, public settings to scope out options.

Masked students and teachers appear in Charlotte Country Day School's virtual open house for young students.
Masked students and teachers appear in Charlotte Country Day School's virtual open house for young students.

Now that’s out, and schools have to find alternatives, such as a virtual open house Charlotte Country Day School recently hosted.

"Usually you come to our campus and we go in and out of the classrooms and you can see and feel and hear the joy of the children learning," admissions director Nancy Ehringhaus said. "But we can’t do that right now, so we’re going to try to help you feel who we are as a school through a series of video clips."

Those videos showed masked students and teachers demonstrating reading, math and other classroom activities.

Working To Get Students Back

Many private and charter schools are already taking applications for the 2021 school year, and others will start early in November. CMS just announced that its choice application season will start Nov. 30, later than usual.

Deputy Superintendent Matt Hayes says CMS is going to work to get families back.

"We know that once we get out of this, we’ve got to have a very strong campaign to bring our families back into our school buildings," Hayes said. "And we’re going to do that and we’re ready to do that."

This year’s drop in enrollment would have been devastating to North Carolina school districts if the General Assembly hadn’t waived the normal rules tying funding and teacher positions to the number of students. Next year remains a question mark — about the coronavirus, about the funding formulas and about whether districts will see enrollment rebound.

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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.