Alabama loses nearly 10,000 public school students, double what was expected

Krista Johnson

Montgomery Advertiser

Official enrollment numbers for Alabama’s public schools show a much larger decrease than preliminary reports expected, with nearly 10,000 fewer students enrolling statewide this year, prompting the governor to encourage a return to in-person student instruction as soon as possible. 

While state superintendent Eric Mackey expressed deep concern last month about preliminary reports indicating a drop of more than 5,000, official reports show that was comparable to last year, about 9,760 students did not enroll in the state’s public school system.

Kindergarten classes experienced the largest decrease, with about 3,024 fewer students. Some of that number, Mackey said, might not be related to the pandemic. 

“Those kids have never enrolled in school, so we don’t know how many there are,” he said. “So, it may be because of the state’s relative population decline. There could be 500 fewer kindergartners anyways, but it’s not likely there are 3,000 fewer 5-year-olds than last year.

“I have a lot of instructional concern about those students. Are they enrolled in a private kindergarten? Are their parents doing instructional activities at home? When they come to school next fall, will they be prepared?” he asked. 

Because Alabama law does not require parents to enroll students in kindergarten,  Mackey said he worries whether parents will send their children straight on to first grade or not, because, “A lot of really important reading and math skills are learned in kindergarten.”

Official enrollment numbers come from the average daily enrollment of students for the 20 days following Labor Day. Some districts, Mackey said, have since returned to their enrollment count from the previous year, with students continuing to show up after the end of the official count. 

Like most districts, Montgomery Public Schools also experienced a decrease, although it was not as steep of a decrease as the year prior. There were about 650 students less who enrolled in the system this school year, while between the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school year, MPS experienced a drop of about 900

Following the state trend, Montgomery’s kindergarten class this year also saw the largest decrease, losing about 266 students.

First grade, along with Grades 7-10, saw an increase in enrollment, with about 39, 93, 145, 248 and 82 additional students, respectively. 

Jennifer Ventress, Lead Nurse for the Alabama Department of Education, from left, State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey, and Director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency Brian Hastings chat after giving an update on safety precautions and preparation for a possible COVID-19 outbreak in Alabama during a press conference in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday March 10, 2020.

Of individual schools, Dalraida Elementary saw the biggest decrease (about 108 students), while Capitol Heights Middle saw the biggest increase (about 75). 

Among the state’s largest districts, each also saw a decrease in enrollment. Birmingham City Schools saw the biggest shortfall, losing about 6% of its students, while the other systems ranged from a 1-3% decrease. 

The only traditional school district to have a significant growth in enrollment was Pike Road Schools, Mackey said, enrolling more than 200 students compared to last year.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.

Three other districts also saw growth, but they operate as stand alone virtual schools that enroll students from anywhere in the state. 

Ahead of the official reports, Mackey had expressed deep concern over the preliminary numbers, citing an “instructional crisis,” that would be far worse for students who have been out of school since the pandemic began. 

Additionally, he explained, school districts could be facing a financial crisis if the Legislature doesn’t make changes to how it allocates funds. 

Currently, the state formula is set up for districts to receive funding for teacher units per so many enrolled students, meaning if there aren’t any changes, districts would lose an incredible number of teacher positions. 

More:All Montgomery Public Schools students set to return to virtual learning beginning Dec. 7

For kindergarten alone, that could mean a cut of at least 200 teachers. 

Because Mackey expects students to return to their schools after the pandemic, he said, the formula needs to be altered to ensure schools aren’t understaffed. 

“I know that the legislative leadership I’m talking to are certainly concerned about all of the impacts of COVID-19 and want to make sure students are safe, classes are not overcrowded and schools have what they need,” Mackey said. 

A plan on how the Legislature will handle the drop in enrollment likely won’t be made publicly until the next legislative session is set to begin in February, he added. 

Gov. Kay Ivey speaks as State Superintendent Eric Mackey and Alabama State Health Officer Scott Harris wait to speak during a Covid-19 press conference at ADPH office in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, March 13, 2020.

Gov. Kay Ivey’s office issued a statement about the decrease, citing the severity of the shortage and the potential lasting impacts. 

“This will not only result in a critical learning loss for our students today but will also likely lead to an equally negative impact on the readiness of our workforce in years to come,” Ivey said in the statement. “Additionally, it could have an equally important economic loss that affects the critical funding for our classrooms and teacher units.

“As we begin the holiday season and contemplate a return to a normalcy in 2021, I strongly urge our education leadership on both the state and local levels to return to in-person instruction as soon as possible.”