The pandemic and virtual learning have pushed parents to reassess educational options for their children.
MAY 10, 2021
While students leave Alexandria City Public Schools every year for a variety of reasons, this is the first year in more than a decade that the total number of students enrolled in ACPS has actually declined.
Since 2014, ACPS enrollment had been increasing between 1.57 percent and 4.45 percent every year — a rate faster than Alexandria’s population growth of about 1 percent per year. In the 2019 – 2020 school year, student enrollment in ACPS increased systemwide by 2.06 percent from the year before, bringing total enrollment to 16,062.
Then, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic arrived in Alexandria. Students were sent home for virtual learning in March 2020, and many families subsequently moved away or found that virtual school was not a good match for their child.
In September 2020 — the start of this school year — enrollment was at just 15,588, a decrease of 3 percent.
Since September, ACPS has gained about 300 students, but had ACPS enrollment continued at its average growth rate of 2.86 percent per year (since 2014), enrollment would have been 16,521 students this academic year.
In his most recent monthly email, Mayor Justin Wilson noted that student enrollment in ACPS schools is down for the first time in a decade and a half. Wilson received some blowback from residents for including this in a list of “good budgetary news,” which he later admitted may not have been the best categorization.
“Our fall enrollment was just about 3 percent lower than last year,” Wilson said. “This is the first reduction in student enrollment in the city in 14 years, so that did lower the required operating transfer that ACPS requested this year.”
Wilson said he has two children in ACPS and his wife is a graduate. “We are certainly supporters of the system and we have had a good experience. We have dedicated educators and support staff who create miracles for our students, especially in the past year,” he said. “But there is no question that the experiences of the past year have made things challenging for families of all kinds. Ordinarily, our schools provide a comprehensive set of services to our families, and we have had to unravel that in the past year.”
Reasons for Leaving ACPS
ACPS is required to capture reasons why students do not return to ACPS every year. The chart below, from a November 2020 ACPS School Board meeting, shows a significant increase in the number of students who left to attend private school, attend public school in another state or be homeschooled compared to previous years.Expand
IMAGE COURTESY OF ACPS
ACPS has not released grade-by-grade data for this academic year, so it is not clear if some of the pandemic-related enrollment decline is due to parents holding back children who would have been in Kindergarten this past September.
ACPS Chief of School and Community Relations Julia Burgos confirmed that enrollment is down this school year because of the pandemic but downplayed the significance. “Our data experts report that people are not leaving ACPS in significant numbers and, aside from the pandemic and our lower Sept 30 numbers, we are not seeing anything unusual in typical enrollment fluctuations than we see during a typical school year,” she said in an email.
Janice Kupiec and her spouse chose to unenroll their 4th grade daughter from Lyles Crouch Traditional Academy in December 2020. Kupiec said the decision was “incredibly hard,” because her daughter had attended the school since Kindergarten.
“The Virtual Plus+ platform was not working for our daughter. Despite the amazing efforts by the teachers at her former school, her frustration levels were constantly high,” Kupiec said.
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They decided to enroll their daughter in a private school so she could get the in-person classroom experience she needed. Kupiec said that her daughter was nervous at first, but that the transformation she witnessed has been incredible. “It was as if I had my old child back — the happy one who was excited to talk to me about her day, the one who enjoyed reading outside of class assignments,” Kupiec said.
Private schools are seeing record levels of interest and applications from public school families.
“I found that we had a lot of interest from our local public schools whether it be Alexandria, Arlington or Fairfax,” said Alexandria Public Day School Director of Admission & Financial Aid Liz Hendrickson. “Our enrollment is definitely up. I’d say as far as interest we got at least double the amount of inquiries we usually get; when it came to actual applications maybe half again as many as we would get in a usual year.”
Many private schools are having no problem retaining the new students and families they gained as a result of the pandemic for the upcoming school year, even though Virginia is pushing all public schools to offer full time, in-person classroom learning this fall.
Blessed Sacrament School Principal, Valerie Garcia, said, “We have a record number of applicants for the upcoming school year. Due to classroom space limitations, most classes are at full capacity for 2021-2022.”
Moving out of Alexandria
For many parents struggling to balance work and their children’s care and education, the decision to resume in-person learning five days a week in the fall is too little, too late.
David Akseizer’s 6-year old son, Tobias, has been attending Kindergarten at George Mason Elementary School, but their family is looking to move to Pennsylvania before the beginning of the fall semester.
“We need to live in an area where there is a better public education system, and where we aren’t being forced to send our children to private school. No family should have to pay taxes, and then spend thousands of dollars a year to go private, unless it is a personal choice,” Akseizer explained. “We actually love the area, but education comes first.”
Tobias said that it is hard to be on a computer all day. Akseizer would often find him doodling or playing with toys instead of paying attention, mostly because the material was not challenging him enough. “I didn’t like it because I didn’t learn as much,” Tobias said.
The Akseizer family gave the current hybrid two days a week in-person and virtual option a chance, but ended up being disillusioned even further by the experience due to what they saw as a lack of efficiency and responsiveness from ACPS.
Homeschooling and Special Education
Other parents have chosen to pull their children out of public school entirely and homeschool them.
According to the Virginia Department of Education, the number of homeschooled students statewide increased from 38,282 for the 2019-2020 school year to 59,638 for the 2020-2021 school year.
In Alexandria there was an increase of 87 homeschooled students reported between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school year. This means that homeschooled students went from 1.7 percent of students to 2.3 percent. For comparison, in nearby Arlington County there were an additional 181 homeschooled students from the 2019-2020 to the 2020-2021 school year – an increase from 0.6 percent to 1.3 percent of students. In Fairfax County there was an increase of 2,665 homeschooled students during that same time period, or 3.3 percent of countywide students compared to 1.7 percent in the previous school year.
Julie Gunlock is the mother of three school-age sons. Her two eldest sons were enrolled at George Washington Middle School until end of August 2020 and her youngest is currently enrolled at George Mason Elementary School. Gunlock, who works full time, is homeschooling her eldest son, an 8th grader, who was on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at George Washington.
She said that she believes special education parents and students have suffered the most under the ACPS COVID-19 response. “I think there was a lot of patience for ACPS in the spring, obviously. Nobody knew what was happening and there was an awful lot of sympathy, but then school got out and there was no communication,” Gunlock explained. “It is so agonizing because you don’t know if their needs are going to be looked after and if the accommodations and special services that they need will be realized.”
Gunlock said that her experience led her to lose trust in ACPS. She enrolled her 6th grader in private school last year, and her youngest son will also attend private school in the fall. She said unless there is a change in ACPS leadership and improved communication with parents, she will not ever re-enroll her children in Alexandria public schools.
Gunlock is concerned about the future of the school system, especially for special education students. She said she is horrified with how long it has taken ACPS to bring the few hundred students enrolled in the citywide special education program back to in-person learning. The program resumed on May 4, long after nearby Fairfax County, which brought many special education students back through in-person cohort groups last fall.
“We just thought we were a public school family and the kids would go to T.C. [Williams High School, recently renamed Alexandria City High School] and everything would be fine. And, look, we’ve got another path and we’re surprisingly happy with that path,” Gunlock said.
At the May 6 ACPS School Board meeting, ACPS announced in a presentation that the 100 percent virtual option for the fall semester will not be offered through ACPS but instead through the statewide Virtual Virginia program.
Affordability a Factor
Private school, moving out of Alexandria or homeschooling are not options for everybody, including those in a lower economic bracket or those whose jobs do not allow them to work from home. Before the pandemic, 63.7 percent of students in ACPS were eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches, compared to 30 percent in Arlington County and 31 percent in Fairfax County.
This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering free lunch to all students, regardless of need.
Some schools are offering financial aid to help offset costs. At Alexandria Country Day School, 35 percent of students received some type of financial aid. Hendrickson observed that there has not been a significant increase in financial aid applicants since the pandemic began, but that they have helped a few families who lost income during the pandemic.
ACPS Looks Ahead to August
When asked how ACPS would respond to parents who have lost trust in the system, Burgos had the following response: “Our vision at ACPS is to empower all students to thrive in a diverse and ever-changing world. We will continue enthusiastically welcoming all students and working to ensure that our schools are safe, friendly and welcoming environments for all.”
Alexandria schools are set to open in late August instead of its normal post-Labor Day opening. When the academic year begins, ACPS plans to offer in-person learning five days per week as well as the Virtual Virginia at-home option. Parents can learn more about their enrollment options when ACPS launches the Learning Choice Form later this month. ACPS encourages families to choose in-person learning but staff will be available to help parents navigate all the options.
“Ultimately, parents need to do what is best for their kids,” Wilson said. “I’m hopeful we will have our schools back as ‘normal’ as possible so that we can provide the comprehensive set of services that our community expects and requires.”
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