WESTFIELD – With reports that public school enrollment in Massachusetts is down by 4 percent from October 2019 to October 2020, according to figures presented to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Tuesday, Westfield Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski said the district is seeing some of the same trends.
Russell Johnston of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported that as of Oct. 1, there were 911,432 students enrolled across the state’s 400 school districts, a decline of more than 37,000 from the previous year. In each of the previous two years, enrollment decreased by fewer than 3,000 students. Almost half of this year’s decline can be attributed to pre-K and kindergarten students, Johnston said.
“We are down about 200 students in total, out of 5,300 last year. That’s about 3.7 percent,” Czaporowski said adding that kindergarten and preschool students made up almost half of that number.
“Kindergarten isn’t mandatory in Massachusetts. Neither is preschool,” Czaporowski said. He said this year enrollment in kindergarten is down approximately 90 students, from 380 to 290, and enrollment in Fort Meadow Early Childhood Center is also down. “It’s hard to tell because they have rolling admission. It might pick up,” he said about the preschool.
“The biggest part is kindergarten, but we’re seeing it at every grade,” Czaporowski said, adding that home school applications have also increased by 25 percent.
In September, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said officials were hearing that some parents of kindergarteners were opting to keep their kids home for a year amid the disruptions to schooling, and some families were choosing to send children to private or Catholic schools that offered in-person learning every day. Czaporowski said he has had students enroll at St. Mary’s for that reason, where there is now a waiting list. Westfield is operating on a week on, week off in-person learning schedule for most students.
Czaporowski said that with a vaccine on the horizon, the district anticipates that a lot of the students will come back. The problem he said will be the way DESE determines future funding.
Enrollment numbers help determine how much funding a school district receives from the state the following year. “The funding formula for the state is that they fund based on October 1 numbers, called the Oct. 1 report. If your numbers are down, they base next year’s funding on that,” Czaporowski said. He said that could pose a problem if for example, this year’s kindergarten students return in droves.
“Our first grade numbers will probably go up next year, and if they base next year’s numbers on (2020) Oct. 1 numbers, there will be a significant shortfall, which has the potential to affect class sizes, and other things,” Czaporowski said.
Czaporowski said all superintendents across the state have made DESE aware of the situation. “We’re hopeful that they will take it into consideration when they’re planning next year,” he said.
Another upcoming issue is MCAS assessments, which were cancelled for tenth graders last spring, and are scheduled for them to take in January and February along with twelfth graders retaking the tests in order to graduate. The regular tests for this year’s tenth graders are scheduled for April.
“According to the Commissioner, it’s a federal requirement, and the federal government waived it last year. If the federal government waives it, the state legislature has to waive it, and the Commissioner would have to make that decision,” Czaporowski said. He said this year Riley has said that the tests should be given regardless, in order to assess where the students are after all of the upheavals.
Czaporowski said the problem is that one-third of district students are remote only, and would have to come in for the tests, unless the state decides to offer alternatives. He says he anticipates a larger number of opt-outs for that reason. If the state goes with traditional accountability measures, participation in MCAS is used to determine whether a district needs to be held accountable. “Participation rates are a factor,” he said.
Czaporowski said the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents has encouraged members to make local legislators and the public aware of what is happening so they will be informed when they start talking about the budget for next year.