School registration down in Louisiana, Orleans Parish

Headmasters say classroom attendance is recovering after a dip during the Omicron Rise.

USA About: School closings Publish: 02/14/2022 Edit: 02/14/2022 Author: Gardener

LouisianaNOLA Public Schools enrollment fell from 45,022 students last spring to 43,982 students in the state's most recent official enrollment census, counted in October and recently released. Those 1,040 students represent a 2.3 percent decrease in enrollment overall from last school year after enrollment fell 3.3 percent the year before. The trend in declining enrollment has prompted the school district to reassess its operational capacity -- a complicated undertaking in the unique all-charter district where independent charter schools operate on a contract basis and the district has limited control to overhaul the system by closing to downsize schools quickly. County officials are working with charter school principals on a “right sizing” plan to ensure under-resourced schools are not a financial drain on the system. NOLA Public Schools officials say 3,000 spots in district charter schools remain unfilled and that number could rise in the coming years. Four of the city's 80 or so schools are scheduled to close at the end of the school year -- two because of underachievement and two because of declining enrollments. Singleton Charter School and Arise Academy were announced last fall. In early January, IDEA Public Schools announced they would be closing their only city campus IDEA Oscar Dunn in May, and FirstLine Schools announced they would be closing their Live Oak Academy by the end of this school year. An upcoming report on city demographics and enrollment trends is expected to shed more light on possible changes the borough may implement in the coming year. It will be presented at the Orleans Parish School Board meeting this week. The declining enrollment is not unique to the city. Louisiana's child population has declined slightly over the past decade, according to census data, and data from the state Department of Education shows enrollment in public schools is declining. Enrollment also fell statewide, from 697,337 public school students in spring 2021 to 690,092 students in the state's Oct. 1 enrollment census. And it's down nearly 5 percent from 2016, when the state had 723,554 public school students. The Louisiana Department of Education did not respond to multiple requests for historical enrollment data. Three of the area's Catholic schools -- St. Mary Magdalen, St. Rita and St. Rosalie -- operated by the Archdiocese of New Orleans will close their campuses at the end of this school year, the archdiocese announced last month. NOLA Public School District officials said they had also seen a drop in private school enrollments, although archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah McDonald said that was not the case. "Despite the challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and problems resulting from Hurricane Ida, enrollment in Catholic schools in the area has remained stable and even increased slightly this school year," McDonald said. "When enrollment drops below a certain level, there is concern that the school may not be able to provide the full Catholic school experience that families expect," she said. “At this point, we are working with community and school leaders to determine next steps that may result in school mergers or closures, and we are working directly with families to support them in enrolling in another Catholic school that meets the needs of each family.” Some neighboring communities have seen a decline in enrollment over the past five years. In 2016, Jefferson Parish had an enrollment of 49,076 students. North St Tammany Parish had 38,681 enrollments in 2016. However, in the parish of St. Bernard, the school system has seen slight growth over the past five years, from 7,582 students in 2016 to 7,795 students last fall. In addition to declining enrollments, schools have struggled with the presence of enrolled students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — sickness, quarantines, the unpredictable shifts between virtual and in-person classes, and staffing shortages. Last school year, as of mid-January, about 9,000 NOLA Public Schools students were reported as chronically absent - meaning they had missed 10 or more days of school. This comes from centralized attendance data collected by NOLA Public Schools from their charters. That reporting was prompted by the pandemic, but the district halted those efforts in March 2021 because attendance was improving, officials said. In the 2017-18 school year, the last unaffected by the pandemic, the Orleans Ward had an overall attendance rate of 93.9 percent. In the 2019/20 school year, this figure slipped to 92 percent, slightly below the national average for that year of 93.9 percent. And in the 2020-21 school year, it fell even further to 87.7 percent, below the state average of 91.7 percent. With students as young as 5 now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination, which has reduced or in some cases eliminated the need for quarantines, school officials are hoping attendance rates will improve this school year. But with expanded testing and the brunt of the delta and omicron waves falling during the school year, potential attendance rates could fall further. Last month, FirstLine Schools CEO Sabrina Pence said attendance at the five schools' network had declined amid the Omicron surge. "We definitely saw a drop in January," Pence wrote in an email. Pence said she believes the drop was due to a number of factors, including higher case numbers and resulting quarantines in the omicron surge and some parents being "cautious" about sending their children to school amid high case numbers. A lack of access to broadband internet can also lead to attendance problems when students are sent home to school due to exposure. Visitor numbers have continued to rise as the city emerges from the Omicron rise, Chief Operations Officer Rebekah Cain wrote in an email Monday morning. “We had three schools last week that hit the 90% for daily attendance. KIPP New Orleans Schools, the city's largest charter group -- which enrolls nearly 14 percent of the district's students -- saw similar attendance issues during the Omicron surge. "In the weeks leading up to the holidays, our network averaged about 85%," CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise wrote in a January email. Rooted School CEO Johnathan Johnson agreed, noting that enrollment was about 76 percent in mid-January. "I don't know if we associate it with the surge, but we've had fewer visitors since Covid." Johnson also said the school's standard of being considered "attendant" may be more demanding than other schools. "We require our students to log in when we're virtual... They have to log in to every class. The district has developed an "early warning system" to track various metrics, including student attendance, lesson points, and other data that can indicate if a student is on track for graduation. Such a system would alert students to the risk of not graduating on time and help schools know when to intervene to get them back on track. “The team at NOLA-PS Data Systems & Solutions is creating a custom data infrastructure solution that offers new opportunities to support schools across the district with student attendance, credit transfer and data quality initiatives that are currently not possible with data access lags of six given the current behind traditional provider systems by months to a year,” wrote district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo. Although the district collected attendance data from its charter schools during the 2020-2021 school year, it suspended that collection in March 2021, Alfonzo said. (The district had never previously collected attendance data from its independent charter schools.) "Because immunizations were well advanced this past spring and there was a proven track record of not spreading COVID-19 to schools, the district decided to begin collecting the biweekly Attendance suspended reports at the end of March 2021," she wrote. "At this point, we reverted to our standard process of schools reporting attendance data directly to the state annually." "The attendance monitoring and intervention tools will be piloted in spring 2022, and further phases of development are expected to continue thereafter," she wrote.

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