Enrollment declines mask missing student problem

Published November 12, 2020

By Bob Luebke

Last week the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released preliminary data that showed enrollment in public schools declined 5.05 percent in the past year.  All but  two school districts saw a decline in first  month 2020-21 enrollment when compared to the same period last year (2019-20).

As we all know, corona virus has upended how students are taught and where they receive instruction. The upheaval of the last seven months has prompted a lot of moving around. Some students have transferred to private schools, enrolled in virtual schools or begun home schooling. Still, others in that five percent are students most schools don’t want to talk about because, schools have lost track of them. They are students that – for whatever reason – are simply disengaged from virtual learning and not logged in to school.

How big are the numbers of missing students? Exact numbers are hard to come by. Bellwether Education Partners estimates between 1 and 3 million students in the US possibly haven’t attended school since the pandemic began in March.

To develop their estimate, Bellwether included two types of students; missing students who are not logged on but would participate if they had the opportunity and students who are missing and students  that are gone.  Those students are defined as students “having made a transition away from school engagements in ways that could be permanent.

In addition, Bellwether considered five high risk groups that were likely to have the most difficulty connecting to school. They included homeless students, children with disabilities, migrant students, foster care children and English learners.  Researchers estimate that between 10 and 25 percent of these students have been disengaged from learning since March.

How many missing students does North Carolina have?

Bellwether’s report also provides state estimates of missing students.

To get the estimate  Bellwether summed the number of  North Carolina’s at-risk students and marginalized student populations. These included foster care, homeless students, migrant children, English learners and children with disabilities  – and total about 308,000 students in North Carolina. Bellwether estimated that missing children could account for between 1  and 25 percent of that population.  As such, estimates of missing children could range from 3,080 students (1 percent) to 77,000 students (25 percent).

If we do some additional calculations it may be possible to get a better estimate of missing students.

North Carolina’s reported enrollment decline of 5.05 percent equates to about 78,500 students out of an overall student population of 1,555,000

Since we don’t yet have enrollment figures for private, home or virtual schools we don’t know how many students migrated to other schools and how many are simply unaccounted for.

Still it is possible to generate reasonable estimates. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume the public school migration generated a ten percent enrollment increase for home schooling (14,900) and private schools (10,400). Those actions account for 25,300 of the enrollment decline. In addition, if we assume 10 percent of those who left the public schools, transferred to a virtual or online school, another 7,850 students would be accounted for.  Still those changes account for less than half  (33,150 students) of the approximately 78,500 students who left the public schools. Where are the rest? Does North Carolina have 45,000 missing students?

Again, we don’t know exactly where students have migrated or exactly how many missing students there are. And these are only estimates. Still, 45,000 missing students is a serious subject to contemplate. How many students is that? The average size of an elementary school in North Carolina is about 550 students.   The average school district in North Carolina enrolls about 12,500 students. Forty-five thousand students approximates the combined enrollments of  Union County Schools (41,320) and Hickory City Schools (4,083).

An enrollment decline of 5.05 percent for North Carolina public schools is a figure that should grab the public’s attention. While many students have chosen home school, virtual or private schools,  there are compelling reasons to believe that  a good number of students have simply stopped engaging with our schools. We need to redouble our efforts to find these children and ensure they receive the help they need.