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Why is enrollment declining in many Utah school districts?

Utah’s declining birth rate, gentrification, rising housing prices and the growing availability of school choice options all appear to be factors

SHARE Why is enrollment declining in many Utah school districts?
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Divan Narsipuram and Lilly Ostler work with an autonomous robot at the Beehive Science and Technology Academy in Sandy on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. 12% of Utah school kids attend public charter school.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Enrollment in many of Utah’s public school districts is on the decline, according to new numbers released by the Utah State Board of Education.

Utah’s declining birth rate is likely a factor, as are gentrification, rising housing prices and the growing availability of school choice beyond neighborhood schools.

The annual October count revealed an overall increase of just 299 students statewide, bringing the state’s total enrollment to 674,650 students, a .04% increase over the 2021-22 count.

The new student census also shows that nearly 12% of public school students attend charter schools.

In Utah, charter schools are public schools. They have boards of directors and in most cases operate independently of school districts.

Charter school enrollment increased by 946 students, up 1.2% from the previous year. Total enrollment in Utah charter schools is 78,732 students, which means the combined total of students rivals the size of some of Utah’s largest school districts.

As the 2020-21 State Charter School Board Annual Report explains, “there are more charter schools than ever before and, therefore, more educational choices for Utah’s families.”

The report continues, “The percentage of students in the state currently enrolled in charter schools is higher than pre-pandemic levels, and we expect that number to continue to rise in the coming years. While not for everyone, online and hybrid schools have proven valid educational models once again. Additionally, student demographics continue to diversify, with more ethnic and racial minority students and English language learners opting for a charter school education.”

There are 140 charter schools operating in Utah this fall.

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Naomi Paranaiba plays a coding game at the Beehive Science and Technology Academy in Sandy on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. 12% of Utah school kids attend public charter school.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

How this charter school’s enrollment more than doubled

The enrollment of the Beehive Science & Technology Academy more than doubled from a year ago, now serving 653 students K-12. This is the first year the nationally recognized academy has offered an elementary school program, which accounts for some of the increase, but enrollment in its secondary grades went up by about 300 students, too, said Beehive’s Executive Director Hanifi Oguz.

The Beehive Science & Technology Academy is an attractive option to families because of its STEM focus, its diversity and small classes where students feel welcomed and supported, Oguz said.

“I think kids feel like they belong here,” he said.

The school’s rigor is likely another drawing card.

The Beehive Science & Technology Academy ranked first among all Utah high schools and 305th nationally on the U.S. News & World Report’s Best High Schools 2022 rankings.

Oguz said the school’s enrollment projections point upward. “Next year, we’ll probably be reaching to 800 and then, you know, down the road, we’ll be growing. We’re planning to be up to 1,000 on this campus,” he said.

The growing demand reflects families’ desire for options aside from their neighborhood schools.

“Parents want choices for their kids because not all the kids are the same ... so they’re probably looking out for different options,” Oguz said.

The Beehive Science & Technology Academy offers a “strong” STEM-based curriculum, he said. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The academy, located in Sandy, offers STEM after-school programs and project-based learning.

“Parents who are looking for more of those things, they are attracted to this program,” he said.

More families are choosing Catholic schools, too

More families are exploring private school options, as well. Mark Longe, superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said enrollment in the system’s 16 schools has been on the rise in recent years after trending downward about 1% annually.

“Prior to COVID-19, our enrollment had been trending down between about 1% a year,” Longe wrote in an email.

Enrollment climbed 6.1% between the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 academic years. This school year’s enrollment is nearly 2% higher than the previous year.

“Those students who have recently come to us, have stayed with us,” he said.

Salt Lake City schools were the last statewide to return to full-time, in-person learning, and some parents there opted to enroll their students in diocese schools, but Longe said there was enrollment growth across its system of 16 schools.

“We’ve always taken a balanced approach to education. We tend to be smaller, our models are smaller schools. They’re really community-based schools. When I used to be a principal, and I took people on tours of my school, I would say, ‘When you go here, this will become your neighborhood. Your children will make lasting friendships here. You will make adult friendships here.

“People, especially today, are looking for meaningful relationships and they are looking for a connection. I think that our model has allowed people to find that connection and that sense of belonging.”

Some news reports indicate that while student achievement in math and reading took a hit nationwide during the pandemic, Catholic schools were a bright spot, according to the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Education Next, a journal of opinion and research about education policy, reported, “Catholic schools showed an increase in performance on 8th grade reading, and held steady in 4th grade math, at achievement levels that were already higher than public schools. Catholic schools lost ground between 2019 and 2022 on 8th grade math and 4th grade reading, but the declines were less than what public schools saw.”

Jonathan Butcher, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, tweeted, “So instead of losing a year as some states/districts did, Catholic schools saved a year.”

According to Education Next, it’s unclear whether the performance could be attributed to the Catholic schools doing a better job with students who were already enrolled, or whether the scores were a function of the influx of new students from families who cared enough about education and had the resources to change schools.

“Perhaps it is a combination of the two. Either way, it is a positive outlier amid a broader test-score story characterized by widespread declines,” Education Next reported.

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Rebeca Fontes works in a geography class at the Beehive Science and Technology Academy in Sandy on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. Twelve percent of Utah school kids attend a public charter school.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah’s declining birth rate plays a role

The very small increase in Utah’s public school population is tied to a declining birth rate nationally and in Utah.

The State School Board’s enrollment report indicates grade-level cohorts in elementary schools statewide are generally smaller than those of older peers. For example, the report says 50,346 first graders enrolled in Utah public schools this fall, compared to 55,402 students in 10th grade.

What’s behind the enrollment declines in Salt Lake City schools?

The Salt Lake City Board of Education has been carefully watching and studying its declining enrollment, which was stable through 2015-16 but has declined by some 3,200 students since, according to a January 2022 report by the Phoenix-based Applied Economics consulting firm.

According to the latest Utah State Board of Education headcount, Salt Lake City’s Oct. 1 enrollment has dropped to 19,449 students, a worrisome trend for district stakeholders.

The Applied Economics report points to the shifting landscape in Utah’s capital city.

“The area at the heart of the district is gentrifying; an aging population and declining household sizes are amplifying the overall decline in birth rates being experienced in Utah and the United States,” the report states.

Construction of multifamily housing developments in Salt Lake City “has skyrocketed over the past dozen years, however the projects generally do not offer amenities to, and are too expensive for, families with children,” according to the report.

Other factors contributing to the decline in enrollment include the rise of online schools, the presence of charter schools and open enrollment policies.

What does school enrollment look like along the Wasatch Front?

Except for Murray City School District, all districts in Salt Lake County experienced slight enrollment declines, although Jordan District’s enrollment dropped by just 11 students.

In Utah County, enrollment in Alpine and Nebo school districts climbed but Provo’s declined.

Alpine School District remains the state’s largest, serving 84,666 students, 667 more than a year ago. The next largest school districts in Utah are Davis with 71,564 students, Granite at 59,121, Jordan with 57,829, and Washington County at 36,623 students.

On the Wasatch Back, enrollment slightly increased in South Summit and Wasatch school districts but declined in Park City, Morgan and North Summit districts.

In Tooele School District, which has slightly lower housing prices, public school enrollment increased by 889 students.

Declining enrollment’s role in painful school closures

Granite School District’s enrollment dropped 1,329 students since last fall.

Steve Hogan, support services director of the Granite School District, told the district school board a number of factors have contributed to the downward trend with enrollment declining by 2,441 students since October 2020: students shifting to charter schools, “COVID nonreturners” and an apparent increase in families electing to home school.

The data is unclear on the latter because the only way school districts can track homeschooled children is through affidavits signed by parents and filed with the school district.

“Some people don’t do that. They just don’t return,” Hogan said.

The school district also keeps track of new charter schools planning to open within district boundaries for possible impacts.

The economy and housing market also play a role in school enrollment, but it is sometimes difficult to identify causality. Hogan said his conversations with officials in other school districts, even those that are growing, suggest “a hard time pinpointing the comings and goings of students.”

Declining enrollment is one factor that prompted the school district to conduct a population study among elementary schools in the Van Winkle/700 East corridor.

After months of study and some 90 community meetings, the district school board voted unanimously on first reading to approve a plan that will close three elementary schools — Twin Peaks Elementary in Murray, Spring Lane Elementary in Holladay and Millcreek Elementary in Millcreek — and to also shift boundaries. A final vote is scheduled for December.

Declining enrollment is one factor — the largest of the three schools served 310 students —but the population analysis committee’s recommendations also considered the age and condition of schools, school acreage and special programs offered at the school, among other factors.

School board member Julie Jackson said Millcreek city’s Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, during a recent breakfast, said one thing he hadn’t anticipated about his elected position was that helping the greater good sometimes means some people get hurt.

“That’s how it feels to me today. And so the goal here is that we’re going to vote for what we think will help the most amount of people but we do know that it will cause some hurt and we regret it,” she said.