Des Moines Public Schools faces millions in lost revenue after drop in enrollment, early figures show

Charles Flesher
Des Moines Register

In a school year filled with headwinds, Des Moines Public Schools is now facing millions of dollars in lost revenue brought on by a decline in enrollment attributed to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

School officials released preliminary numbers Thursday that show enrollment is down 1,165 students across the district. Officials believe some parents of young children have delayed their start to preschool and kindergarten, and some older students have transferred to districts offering in-person classes. 

The downturn could cost Des Moines an estimated $8 million in direct financial support from the state in addition to federal money tied to special-education and English-language-learner students who have left the district. 

It's the biggest enrollment shift in at least a decade, according to district data, and more than 3½ times the average yearly change over the past 10 years. 

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Phil Roeder, director of communications for the district, said it is too early to know how the shortfall will affect the district. He said state and national leaders need to address the effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on schools. 

"First, just this week the state of Iowa announced a large budget surplus, which puts the governor and the new General Assembly to take office in January in a good position to do more to fund public education," he said. "Second, public schools need to be a part of any federal coronavirus relief plans that will hopefully be agreed to by Congress and the White House."

The district expects to see an enrollment increase next year as "much of the decline in enrollment is at the early grade levels as parents wait to have their children begin school when it is back to ‘normal,’" he said.

How DMPS compares to other school districts in Iowa and other states

A check with two other metro districts, Waukee and Johnston, did not show a large drop in their early counts. Waukee, one of the fastest-growing districts in the state, reported an increase of 255 students over last year, and Johnston reported a slight drop of 72 students.

Across the country, students are disappearing from the rosters of their local public schools. Like Des Moines, many of the districts with declining enrollment have opted to start the year with all children learning virtually. 

Large districts such as Austin, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and Nashville are reporting enrollment declines and missing large swaths of children in the youngest grades.

That's the case in Des Moines, where the biggest hit has come at the prekindergarten and kindergarten levels. Kindergarten enrollment alone is down 271 students from last year. 

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"We're actually reaching out to determine whether those families have gone somewhere else or, what we think is most likely, they're delaying the start of their school career in the hopes that we'll have better conditions relative to health and safety when their child starts school," Des Moines schools Superintendent Tom Ahart told school board members Wednesday.  

DMPS sports still suspended, in-person classes to resume soon

Des Moines also has seen fewer students open-enrolling into the district, the superintendent said, and others have left the district to play sports at schools offering in-person classes. 

Des Moines athletes have been sidelined since early September after the district began the school year fully online, defying Gov. Kim Reynolds' order that Iowa schools offer at least half of their classes in person. If schools are operating primarily online, either because of leaders' concerns about spread of the coronavirus or because of outbreaks, students can't participate in extracurricular activities. 

On Wednesday night, the board of education voted to begin reopening school buildings and return students to in-person classes part-time. The first schools will reopen Oct. 12 and more will reopen gradually over the following month. 

Enrollment numbers are important because they equal money for classrooms and teachers. In Iowa, the majority of a school district's operating budget comes from state tax dollars, which are allocated on a per-pupil basis. Districts are to receive $6,875 for each student enrolled in 2020. 

Less money means teachers get moved around, reassigned or laid off. Or it could mean fewer support services for students, or fewer specialized classes, or fewer nurses and counselors. 

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Overall, Des Moines is reporting a total enrollment of 32,477, down from 33,642 a year ago. It's the third year in a row of declining enrollment for the district. Des Moines has now lost 1,659 students since the 2017-18 school year and dropped to its lowest enrollment level since 2011-12, when there were 32,090 students. 

Des Moines' final enrollment count will not be certified by the state until mid-October. 

More than 550 students have not logged on for online classes

Nearly four weeks into the new school year, hundreds of Des Moines students have not yet logged on for a single online class, and even more are not participating daily in all of the classes on their schedule.

During the first 12 days of the school year, the district reported that 98.3% of students logged on to the remote learning platform at least once. That's down from 99.1% of students who attended school at least once through the first 12 days of last year. 

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Des Moines officials say the gap will tighten as more students connect and enrollment figures are adjusted to remove students who have dropped out or transferred schools. 

However, as the state's largest school district, with more than 32,000 students, that means more than 550 students who attended school in the spring and were expected to return this fall or enrolled over the summer have yet to attend a class. 

"The first warning sign we have is a student not logging in," Ahart told board members Wednesday. "Those students are reached out to, to ensure that they have what they need and that they're connected, and that there's not an issue, a non-school issue that's interfering."

Des Moines has distributed tens of thousands of laptops to students since the pandemic first closed schools in March. It's teamed with Mediacom to provide internet access to thousands more. 

Jill Padgett, the district's community schools coordinator, said much of the first week of school was spent making sure students had internet access and teaching them how to access programs used by the district.

"We're still continuing to troubleshoot some connectivity issues and making sure all kids have access," she said. "We anticipate that number will creep up."

Online participation lags student attendance from year ago

Similar to the decline in initial participation, the percentage of students taking part in online classes on a regular basis is lower when compared to attendance figures from when classes were held in person last school year. 

According to the district, Des Moines students participated in 84.7% of "virtual learning opportunities" during the first 12 days this year. Last year, attendance was 92.5% districtwide over the first 12 days. 

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That drop is due in part to the different ways in-person attendance and online participation are measured. Lower participation numbers do not necessarily show that students are not learning, because students have more ways to engage with web-based classes, school officials say.

"We've tried to stop using the word attendance and start using the word participation," Padgett said. 

In the online environment, students are no longer subject to a headcount at the beginning of each class. (In fact, students are not required to attend classes at a set time each day.) Instead, they can demonstrate participation in four ways:

  • By taking part in online group lessons (whether live or via a recording);
  • By logging onto Canvas, the district's online learning module; 
  • By submitting completed work assignments;
  • Or by taking part in one-on-one meetings with teachers during regular office hours. 

That can result in participation rates appearing artificially low, since, for example, a student could watch multiple online lessons or complete several work assignments in a single day, but be counted for only one day of participation. 

"In this model, we're really looking at not only whether a student is present or absent, but did they participate in instruction," Padgett said. "And so that kind of asks a different question, because in a physical world you could come all day and not engage in any content. This is really getting down to what's the student's engagement in instruction."

The district's system is able to track how often students log in and how long they stay online. Teachers can also track that participation and monitor each student's progress on course materials and grades.

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If a student misses more than two days in a week, teachers are expected to connect with the student. If the student does not respond or if a teacher notices a student is starting to fall behind, the district's support staff of counselors, case managers and school coordinators step in. 

"That student support team will look at the whole picture of what's happening with that student, and they'll develop some strategies to engage with the student differently," Padgett said. 

Last week, the district launched an online application form that allows families or outside agencies that work with families to request additional support. Those requests are routed to the support team at the student's school and will be answered within 48 hours, Padgett said. 

Although participation rates are trailing last year's attendance, Padgett said she's encouraged by the numbers. 

Through the first two weeks of school, elementary students had the highest participation rate at 90.3%, while middle school students participated in 82.5% of classes and high school students participated in 76% of classes. 

"That's no different than the physical world," Padgett said. "In K-5 you don't have as many transitions for kids; they're with that primary teacher the majority of their day. And then in secondary, you do see that number go down slightly, and that's … been the case in the physical attendance world as well."

USA Today reporter Erin Richards and Des Moines Register reporter Sarah Leblanc contributed to this story. 

Charles Flesher covers K-12 education for the Register. He can be reached by email at cflesher@registermedia.com or by phone at 515-284-8481. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesFlesher.