As families make their school choices during the annual enrollment season this winter, there are a lot of unknowns for district leaders to manage. The size of the student population shouldn’t be one of them. When district student enrollment numbers drop, a whole community can find itself in a panic. School principals start worrying about potential cuts to their staff. District administrators start worrying about consolidating or closing schools. And if all this happens unexpectedly, then parents and students are the ones who suffer.
Denver Public Schools (DPS) is at a similar crossroads: enrollment levels are in decline after a period of population boom, but their leaders are able to nimbly respond to enrollment changes due to a number of systems they have in place. Other city leaders take heed.
In most traditional districts, enrollment data isn’t used for a great deal of strategic decision-making, but thanks in part to Denver’s universal enrollment system and student-based school budgeting process, they have a much richer set of data to understand which schools and parts of the city are attracting (or losing) students. Leaders use this to aid in decision-making when it comes to high-stakes subjects like school creation, turnaround, or closure.
These tools also allowed Denver to grow quickly while improving student outcomes. As former DPS official and enrollment management expert Brian Eschbacher explained recently in The 74, during his seven years as the executive director of planning and enrollment services in Denver, he and his team could detect, assess, and respond to changes in student enrollment. Through their annual Strategic Regional Analysis process, DPS staff were able to understand what areas or programs were popular with families as well as where enrollment was beginning to wane. In both cases, it allowed district leaders to be more proactive in their decision-making based on a detailed understanding of enrollment trends.
Understanding enrollment trend data is only the first step to managing declining enrollment: it needs to be paired with action that can help mitigate some of the negative effects of school closure decisions and provide high-quality options for students and families affected by those decisions. That could mean consolidating schools, as is happening with a Denver charter school, but it’s important that such dramatic steps are accompanied with supports for students and families. (My colleague Lynne Graziano recently wrote about how districts can help families navigate the school closure process.)
Better understanding of enrollment data can also help districts adjust course before such drastic actions need to be taken. Understanding what kinds of schools attract families can help districts shift their offerings to better align with what families want for their kids. One example of this can be found in Jeffco Public Schools (a district neighboring Denver), where they are turning a school that’s losing enrollment into a “classical school,” a model that’s been popular in neighboring communities.
Leading a school district through declining enrollments is never easy, but the impact can be managed through smart leadership. If districts learn from and adopt Denver’s “detect, assess, respond” approach to enrollment trends, they’ll be better prepared to ensure that enrollment dips don’t lead to negative outcomes for kids and families.