Clark County school districts seeing enrollment numbers well below estimates

Many families are choosing homeschool or alternative learning, at least for now

CLARK COUNTY — School districts across Clark County knew starting the academic year with fully online learning was likely to lead to a dip in enrollment.

Most of them had community surveys to prove just how many parents were opposed to keeping their students home, even if online learning was much improved from the shoot-from-the-hip solutions employed last March after schools closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

With that information in hand, most districts took steps even before the new school year began to tighten their budgetary belts. 

Thousands of Clark County students may not be returning to classrooms, even when schools begin to reopen. File photo
Thousands of Clark County students may not be returning to classrooms, even when schools begin to reopen. File photo

Evergreen School District furloughed nearly 500 classified employees, Battle Ground has more than 100 employees still sitting at home, and Vancouver Public Schools announced this week that more than 600 employees would either be furloughed or have their hours reduced.

As it turns out, it may not be enough.

The Battle Ground School Board expects to vote at their next meeting on further staff reductions after their initial enrollment headcount came in at 11,828, nearly 9 percent below their budgetary estimates.

Most of the enrollment declines have been in kindergarten and elementary grade levels.

Evergreen Schools Superintendent Mike Merlino told his district’s Board of Directors this week that initial enrollment for elementary and kindergarten, alone, accounted for all but 160 of their 1,260 student decline over this time last year.

“Between that and the issues with transportation that we’re facing, we could be talking about a $10 to $15 million decline in revenue over what we had budgeted,” Merlino told the board.

Vancouver Public Schools counted 21,275 students enrolled, a full 725 below their budgeted estimates.

Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said they’ve seen enrollment decline by around 5.5 percent over last year, a reduction of around 155 students, again mostly at the kindergarten and elementary school levels.

“Our graduating class of 2020 is quite a bit bigger than the incoming Kindergarten cohort, which accounts for some of the difference,” Templeton said in an email to Clark County Today. “We are confident that once we resume our hybrid or in-person learning models, additional families will rejoin us for our excellent programs.”

Washougal has also temporarily laid off some classified employees to adjust to the student declines, though the district didn’t detail how many people were affected.

Things are even more dire in the Hockinson School District, which has seen enrollment fall by 11.2 percent over last year, a decline of 220 students below budget, which would represent a shortfall of $2.1 million according to district Superintendent Steven Marshall.

“Distance learning comes with a number of challenges. For instance, we are consistently hearing about poor or inadequate internet service,” Marshall said in an email to Clark County Today. “We are doing our best to address those issues by providing wi-fi access at our school sites and, in limited instances, mobile hot spots. But there are also new opportunities. One example is our HVA (Hockinson Virtual Academy) online program. Another is our teachers’ professional growth; every day they are learning new instructional strategies and finding new ways to build relationships with students and stay connected to our families.”

Marshall also provided comments from parents, many of whom enjoy the HVA program, though one noted that six hour-long classes each day can make it difficult to make much progress with a hectic schedule.

“I am a little stressed about the potential workload while trying to balance her stress levels,” the parent wrote of her student. “We are looking for more guidance on how many lessons per week are expected.”

Even fast-growing Ridgefield saw a decline of 11 students over last year, which may not seem like much until you realize they had budgeted for an increase of 120, which was considered a conservative estimate given recent growth rates.

So where are students going?

If students aren’t logging in for online lessons, where are they getting their education from? 

Turns out, most of them may be switching to homeschooling, at least for now.

Merlino says 550 parents in the Evergreen School District have filed an intention to homeschool. 210 families in Hockinson filed to do the same.

In Battle Ground, enrollment at their River HomeLink alternative school program is up to 1,485 from just over 1,000 last October.

As for whether those students will return when districts are able to begin reopening classrooms to a hybrid learning model remains unclear.

A RealClear Opinion Research survey of 2,122 registered voters done last May found 40 percent of families would at least be open to the idea of continuing to homeschool their children, even after schools reopen.

“This is the time for leadership and for desperately needed bold reforms to be implemented across our K-12 education system,” said John Schilling, president of the American Federation of Children, which pushes for more choice in basic education. “Millions of families are seeing the inadequacies of school districts that are too inflexible.  We owe it to our nation’s families and students to give them more flexibility and additional educational options.”

Schilling’s organization has done polling that shows 70 percent of families would enroll their child in private or charter schools, or homeschool them if that were an option.

It remains to be seen if what districts are facing now becomes the new normal. If it is, they will have some difficult choices to make.

In Washington, nearly 70 percent of basic education funding comes through the state, with the rest made up in local enrichment levies. Each full-time student represents approximately $9,000 in funding. 

Since that funding is based on an average enrollment over the year, there is still time for districts to make up some of the gap. But that’s only if parents decide the alternatives they’ve chosen aren’t working out, and decide to put their children back into public schools.

Meanwhile, districts will be waiting, watching, and hoping for the best.

So will hundreds of employees who may find their temporary furlough becoming permanent the longer things drag on.