Dori: What’s behind Seattle schools big enrollment drop?

Jul 7, 2022, 4:25 PM
(Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)...
(Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
(Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

When Seattle mom Ashley Bede moved to Laurelhurst six years ago, the local public elementary school was a big attraction.

Now, her two children attend a private school, and their family is part of a troubling trend for Seattle Public Schools: A significant and continuing drop in student enrollment.

Bede’s family isn’t alone.

Since 2019, Seattle schools have seen a 6.4% enrollment decline, district reports show. If 2022-23 school year projections hold true, the district could see an 8% drop from the earlier peak. This fall-off is more than double the statewide 3.4% decline in the same time period.

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In absolute numbers, Seattle schools are planning for 48,748 students to return to classrooms this fall. That is down from a 52,793 peak just three years ago.

Enrollment numbers are tied to statewide financial support for students; a plunge means less money for schools. Often, this means reassigning teachers from schools with fewer students.

Bede told The Dori Monson Show on Thursday that the choice to leave their family’s neighborhood school behind wasn’t easy. When they first bought their home six years, Bede said, “in large part, it was because of Laurelhurst Elementary.”

“When I toured, it looked incredible,” said Bede, who serves on diversity committees for both her college alma mater and her children’s current school.

After her initial tour of their assigned school, “I was really happy about the diversity numbers – that was a big draw,” she said.

But after more research and conversations with friends, she continued, “it wasn’t what I hoped it would be.”

What was missing? Dori asked.

“I really strongly believe in public schools – but I just felt like the resources weren’t there,” Bede told Dori’s listeners.

“Teachers are the most important part of any system,” she responded. “If teachers aren’t getting the support that they need to do their very best, then that is where we’re falling short for our educators as well as our kids.”

“Overworked” educators are left without “the infrastructure” to teach students who learn above or below the mean, Bede said.

While there are no exact statistics to show why enrollment is down, the causes are many, according to Dori’s listeners.

The district points to an expected decline due to a lower birthrate. Some parents blame COVID safety and health concerns for keeping their children out of Seattle’s public schools.

Other parents have told Dori they are concerned about the district’s weak test scores. Results from Washington’s Smarter Balanced assessments in 2021 show just 30% of public school 4th-11th graders statewide met math standards. That’s a 20% drop from 2019. Some 52% of those same students met English standards in 2021 – down 9% from 2019.

Meanwhile, Dori said, many of these same parents tell him they are frustrated with the district’s overemphasis on social justice issues at the expense of core curriculum lessons.

“There are ways,” Bede believes, “to integrate (social justice) issues without compromising the core curriculum.”

Meanwhile, the Seattle mom said she and many other parents watch the dropping enrollment because they know what it means financially for students and families who remain in under-funded schools.

“I want to believe in the public school system just on principle,” Bede said, “but the increase in families moving to private schools just makes me nervous.”

Listen to Dori Monson weekday afternoons from noon – 3 p.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Dori: What’s behind Seattle schools big enrollment drop?