Special Report: Indiana school districts notice enrollment decline due to pandemic


INDIANAPOLIS – There’s a significant decline in student enrollment this year and education experts say the pandemic is to blame. It’s an issue impacting districts across the country and right here at home.

Sherry Holmes says navigating her kids education during this past year has been an adjustable journey.

“My original plan was that they were going to stay at home with me the entire time,” shared Holmes, a parent with children who attend Indianapolis Public Schools.

Holmes changed her mind as the pandemic went on after feeling like her kids were missing out on some of the experiences they would have by attending school.  Her kindergartner and third grader are now back in the classroom.

But some seats remain empty.

“Each kid is different,” Holmes added.

Data from the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) shows a 1.3% statewide enrollment decrease across 1,900 public schools.

“Every student matters,” said Holly Lawson, the IDOE Deputy Communications Director, “That’s the perspective of our schools, that’s the perspective of the Department of Education. We care about every student and we want to make sure we’re providing the best opportunity and environment for them to succeed.”

That’s 13,213 Indiana students not enrolled this year compared to last year. Broken down by grade, the numbers show that younger students were significantly impacted. There was a 2.32% drop of first through sixth graders. That’s more than 10,000 students.

Lawson attributed the total drop in enrollment to fewer families enrolling in kindergarten.

“Parents are making the decision at the kindergarten level to maybe keep their kids home for another year, maybe to extend preschool, maybe a situation where they’re not comfortable… maybe they’re homeschooling,” Lawson explained.

Data shows that kindergarten enrollment was down more than 7% in the state.

“We started virtually so we know that probably impacted some families,” said Dr. Nathalie Henderson, Chief Schools Officer, Indianapolis Public Schools

Henderson believes barriers to technology and disparities amongst students could have added to the challenge. It’s concerning for her.

“Especially if we’ve not been able to track them down,” said Henderson. “Where did they go?

Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) reported a loss of just under 2,500 students. A decrease of kids in almost every grade according to the document provided by the IDOE.

“Like many other districts across the city, the state and the country we did have an enrollment loss,” Henderson explained.

MSD of Lawrence Township saw a dip of roughly 300 students that they attribute to the pandemic. In Hamilton Southeastern Schools there’s a difference of about 400 kids.

For Muncie Community Schools,  they lost about 50 students. District representatives believe that’s related to the fact that students have been in session the entire school year.

Meanwhile, Center Grove Community schools saw a slight increase. School leadership says the growth wasn’t as much as we anticipated, but they suspect that may be due to some parents waiting a year to enroll their kindergarten students. 

“Our funding is tied to our students,” said Henderson.

Enrollment numbers have a direct impact on school budgets. Although Governor Eric Holcomb has announced a historic investment nearly $2 billion toward K-12 education. Henderson says tough decisions would have to be made if enrollment doesn’t stabilize.

“I think we tend to try to keep those away from schools, right, but at some point the pie gets too small you may have to,” said Henderson.

This motivates IPS. As part of the “Finish Strong Initiative”, teachers are not only calling home they’re knocking on doors and going out into the neighborhoods to reconnect with families.

“I’m going to champion that for them, said Ashley Thomas, “Because you never know what is happening behind those doors.” As the Regional Organizing Director for Stand for Children Indiana, Thomas wants parents to know, it’s okay to speak up.

“Reach out to your child’s former teacher, former principal, call the district office of the school district that you’re in and do not be embarrassed about anything that you need to do for your babies,” Thomas added

Because getting children back in the classroom has to be the focus.

“We’ve got to do this all together,” said Holmes.

As for Indianapolis Public Schools, now that they’ve returned to in-person learning, attendance is increasing. They’re setting goals each month and celebrating those achievements with their students.

Here’s a look at the attendance data. According to IPS, this data is year-to-date through April 9 for each of the years represented. The last bar is for the week of April 5-9 this year when all schools (middle and high schools) returned to full-time in-person learning.

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