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Why St. Louis-area schools are still losing students every year

Children arrive at Hancock Place Elementary School, Sept. 23, 2020. The south St. Louis County district was among the first to bring students back after the pandemic, but has still seen enrollment declines in recent years.
Ryan Delaney
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Children arrive at Hancock Place Elementary School. The south St. Louis County district is among the many St. Louis-area districts that have seen a decline in enrollment since the 2016-17 school year.

The student population in public schools in the St. Louis region declined again this year, this time by more than 2,500 students. It’s part of a long-term trend reflecting larger demographic changes in St. Louis and across the country.

Since the first school year that was affected by the pandemic, there are almost 9,000 fewer students in public schools in the three most populous counties in eastern Missouri, according to preliminary data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The majority of school districts are seeing this decline; only a handful of traditional public schools grew in that time frame, including Wentzville and Orchard Farm in St. Charles County, and Bayless, Lindbergh and Kirkwood in St. Louis County. Many charter schools are also growing quickly, including a few that opened in recent years.

The declining birth rate is one of the biggest factors behind the shrinking number of students, said Ness Sandoval, a demographer and professor at St. Louis University. Birth rates began to fall after the 2008 recession and have mostly continued to decline since.

“We just have fewer children that are being born,” Sandoval said. “And I think we're going to continue to see a decline because the birth rates are not increasing.”

Also, families are leaving the region, adding to the trend. Sandoval says Black families in particular have been leaving both the city and the greater St. Louis area, sometimes because they are unhappy with the schools.

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St. Louis Public Schools has seen some of the biggest losses, with more than 500 fewer students this school year compared to last year. In 1998 the district had more than 44,000 students — it now has fewer than 17,000.

That decline has changed St. Louis Public Schools’ position relative to other local school districts; after years as the largest school district in the region, SLPS has now fallen to the fifth largest. Those SLPS students haven’t just gone to charter schools or to the county, said Ashley Donaldson Burle, interim executive director of the PRiME Center, which studies education in Missouri.

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“I think sometimes there's this narrative that, well, students are just leaving St. Louis city and they're going to St. Louis County, or they're going to St. Charles County,” Burle said. “But the data doesn't show that that's true.”

The increase in students at charter schools has been smaller than the loss of students from SLPS in recent years, Burle added.

The pandemic is also a factor in school enrollment trends, although likely not as much as overall population shifts. Burle said the amount of time a district spent in distanced learning appeared to drive some parents to make other choices.

“Particularly in areas where distance education or virtual education was common it seemed like there was lots of conversation around students enrolling in other options or parents seeking out other options,” Burle said.

The Hancock Place School District was among the first in the St. Louis region to return to in-person learning, but it has still seen multiple years of declining enrollment. Superintendent Kevin Carl said some families chose to stay in virtual school or homeschool, but again, demographics play a bigger role. The district keeps track of birth rates in its community and knows its population is getting older.

“We're a very small geographic district, so we're landlocked,” Carl said. “There's not a lot of room for growth in terms of residencies. And with that, we also have an aging population.”

Carl cited another factor that highlights the potential variables that aren’t immediately apparent in the data – Hancock Place has about half the number of students it used to enroll from the region’s voluntary desegregation program. In a small district, that can make a big difference.

All of these numbers are important because district funding is largely based on enrollment. A decline in students eventually hurts a district’s finances. For now, Hancock Place has taken advantage of the decline by having smaller class sizes, partly supported by federal COVID-19 funding. But Carl said as the decline continues, schools will have to think about how to best serve their students with smaller budgets.

“I believe that schools are going to have to be very mindful of how they handle their staffing,” Carl said. “I think you'll see some adjustments. We're fortunate in our situation that we've again planned and anticipated some of this. And just naturally, as we have some attrition as teachers retire or they move on to other things, there will be some positions that aren't filled. But in terms of stability in the workforce, all of our teachers that want to return have a place with us.”

This overall trend is expected to continue. Missouri could lose 10% of its public school students between 2020 and 2030, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Illinois is projected to lose 5% of its students in that time. NCES also predicts a national public school enrollment decline.

Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

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