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Utah public school enrollment drops for the first time in 20 years

Near 4% decline in kindergarten enrollment and an 80% single year increase in online school enrollment

Students walk to their buses after school at Rose Springs Elementary in Erda, Tooele County, on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020.
Students walk to their buses after school at Rose Springs Elementary in Erda, Tooele County, on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s public school enrollment has declined for the first time since 2000, according to data released Thursday by the Utah State Board of Education.

The state head count conducted on Oct. 1 shows a total head count of 665,306 students, down 0.23% from a year ago.

Kindergarten enrollment dropped statewide by nearly 4%, representing 1,457 fewer students. Kindergarten is optional in Utah but most children are enrolled. The last time kindergarten enrollment was this low was in 2010.

With the exception of second grade, all lower grades showed a decline in growth

There was also a drop in the enrollment of students in all grades who were not in a Utah school the previous year, which suggests a decline of in-migration to the state.

The data also indicates a sharp increase in online school enrollment, a single year increase of 80%, up from 14,755 in 2019 to 26,605 in 2020.

Numbers of children who transferred to home schooling this fall compared to a year ago tripled. Last fall, 914 transferred compared to 3,375 this fall.

Meanwhile, numbers of students who transferred to private schools at the start of the school year increased by 25% from a year ago, up to 521 this fall compared to 411 last fall.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said enrollment counts are especially important this year as schools contend with effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In addition to our annual Oct. 1 head count, the Utah State Board of Education is taking additional enrollment counts throughout the year to help the state, districts and charter schools keep track of students in this environment,” Dickson said.

Board data also indicated some wild swings in enrollment, with one online charter school, Mountain Heights Academy, experiencing a 67% increase from the previous year.

School districts were a mixed bag. Some had 25% to 27% increases in enrollment, although much of the increases were attributed to increased enrollment in online schools or programs run by the districts. Provo School District had a 20% decline in enrollment, according to state figures. The district did not return phone messages seeking explanation.

Alpine School District remains Utah’s largest school district with 80,953, down 1% from a year ago, followed by Davis at 70,643, which had a 3% decline in enrollment.

Next were Granite School District with 61,851 students, a decline of 3%, and Jordan School District at 56,102, down only 237 students from a year ago.

Washington School District’s overall enrollment climbed to 35,346, an increase of 4%, moving it into the top five in terms of enrollment.

The largest public school statewide is Alpine School District’s Skyridge High School in Lehi, which had a head count of 3,014 on Oct. 1. The smallest is Lake Powell High School with 6 students, according to state data.

The state’s smallest school, which is not an online school or specialty school, is Grouse Creek Elementary in Box Elder County, which has three students.

The state’s smallest districts are Daggett with 187 students, Tintic with 213 students and Piute at 291.

An unofficial enrollment count conducted in September also found that public school exit codes for students demonstrated an upturn in both home schooling options for younger children and a larger than normal migration to private school options, the data showed.

One data point of concern was the decline in the number of students designated as economically disadvantaged — an 8.28% drop, or more than 17,000 students.

The State School Board is working with districts and charters to clarify the data. The decrease may be due to a federal policy that continued free school lunch for all through the end of the calendar year.

Deputy State Superintendent Scott Jones said schools will also conduct a headcount in January to further refine the numbers. Enrollment drives the state school funding formula, so it is important that the data is highly reliable.