More students are entering kindergarten in the Robbinsdale School District this fall than the previous year, according to district officials shortly before the school year began.
Meghan Hickey, District 281’s director of student services, said the incoming Class of 2034 was currently 70 students above the number of kindergarteners enrolled in the previous school year.
In general, public school enrollment trended downward statewide in the pandemic year, as parents opted to homeschool or delay education. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, public school enrollment across the state decreased by 2%, meaning there were 17,000 fewer enrolled students in 2020-2021 than there were in 2019-2020. The department reported even lower numbers among incoming kindergarteners, with an 8% decrease in enrollment.
Hickey called the influx of young students in Robbinsdale this fall “a big change,” but nothing out of the district’s range, and fewer in number than the 2019-2020 class. Unless a significant number of last-minute enrollments occurred, Hickey said actual numbers would stay pretty faithful to projections made by her department in January.
Forecasting expected the increase
Resources, staff, and class sizes are planned around those projections, or enrollment “forecasting.” The forecast is completed in-house, and is formulated based on national and state education statistics, work by demographers, and Hennepin County birth records.
Hickey said forecasting accuracy was the biggest indicator of how prepared the district was for the school year. If actual enrollments didn’t match the forecast, than the district would begin the year with an unbalanced number of staff and resources.
The 2020-2021 school year had a wide gap between the forecast and actual enrollment because the pandemic began after the forecast was solidified. Hickey said the district was 250 students short of the estimate. The shortfall is what motivated the district to forecast more conservatively this year, she said.
Because the forecast for 2021-2022 is slightly higher than actual enrollment so far, the larger group of kindergarteners this year isn’t concerning district staff.
“Right now, we have staffing in place for the kindergarteners we have,” she said. “Last year, we had low class sizes, but this year we’re back to more typical class sizes, and we’re sitting right where we want them to be ... really, slightly below where we want them to be.”
Waiting out an unpredictable environment
Hickey said while the increase in enrolled kindergarteners could mean the district is beginning to revert to pre-pandemic enrollment trends, the numbers did not match a complete return. She believed parents were again considering the impact COVID-19 could have on their child’s first-ever year of school.
“Many families are still choosing academic redshirting,” Hickey said. “So these are families with students that have a summer birthday but could enter school this fall. It’s the practice of choosing to delay sending a student to school, with the idea that hopefully next year things will be more predictable.”
Redshirting was also a player in the 2020-2021 school year, but it has appeared to carry forward as COVID-19 continues to spread. Children redshirted in 2020-2021 may now be entering the public school system, but students one year younger are likely being redshirted for the first time.
Another piece in the enrollment puzzle: homeschooling. The MDE reported a 50% increase in homeschooling in the 2020-2021 school year, a concept that may remain appealing to parents with COVID-19 still at large.
Ultimately, the district is limited in its ability to track how many eligible children weren’t enrolled in a given school year, Hickey said, and the “why” is even more difficult.
Larger enrollment slump
As the first day of school loomed closer, Hickey said enrollments had begun to pile in for the district’s online learning program, Robbinsdale Virtual Academy.
“We’re seeing a lot of increase in that. Hardly any had chosen it a few weeks prior,” she said.
For families with kindergarteners, though, online learning didn’t appear to be a popular choice.
“We are seeing very minimal enrollment there,” Hickey said.
Enrollment, in general, has been on the decline in the district for about 10 years, Hickey said. Her department believed it was due to demographic shifts in a region that is “built-out” and unable to create many new housing options.
One promising statistic is an increase in birth trends in recent years, she said. The district also continued to explore opportunities for magnet and language immersion schools, which continued to be popular with families in the district.