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Where did the kindergarteners go? Pittsburgh Public Schools enrollment drops in early grades

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

The total number of students attending Pittsburgh Public Schools appears to have dropped below 20,000 for the first time in modern history, though district officials stress that enrollment data isn’t finalized.

Officials say that the decline is largely driven by kindergarten attendance.

The district enrolled 20,449 students last year (21,407 with preK), and according to data received through a WESA Right To Know request, that number was down to 19,495 as of Oct. 5. The unofficial number would reflect a nearly 20 percent enrollment decline in a decade.

According to the data obtained by the information request, 1,550 kindergarten students were enrolled as of Oct. 5. Ted Dwyer, the district’s chief data, research and accountability officer, said he had expected 1,800, based on trends from previous years. In 2020, there were 1,438 kindergarteners in a year when PPS taught students remotely for the vast majority of the school year.

“We’re missing hundreds of kindergarteners, and nobody knows where they are,” Dwyer said. “And it’s not like they’re going to one type of school or another. It’s just that they’re not going to school.”

Unofficial enrollment data for Pittsburgh charter schools tracked by WESA shows moderate growth in a majority of schools. The most significant growth took place within systems that added a grade level, such as Catalyst Academy and Environmental Charter School.

Pittsburgh Public Schools

Lasting impact

Whatever the reason for the decline, it could have a serious financial impact on an already strapped district.

The state and federal government use a district’s Oct. 1 enrollment as the official student count when distributing education funding.

The final count has to be submitted by Nov. 16. Dwyer said that in a typical year, he'd be confident by this point that the figures are accurate, but this year’s numbers are more fluid.

Still, unofficial data gives school board members a look at what to expect for funding when voting on a budget this December.

The district faces a nearly $40 million budget deficit, and the Chief Financial Officer recently told the school board that unless it makes big changes, the district will deplete its reserve fund by 2023.

The board will face hard decisions about the district’s infrastructure, and a conversation that briefly started last year during budget season: closing schools.

The district has capacity for nearly 40,000 students. The average age of its buildings is 85 years, and they’re increasingly expensive to maintain, according to district officials.

“This [data] is a proxy for what’s going on. This is not actually what’s going on,” he said. “I think that it’s telling us something huge about our youngest grades.”

Dwyer said the 2020-21 kindergarten class continued to shrink as students moved into first grade this year. Last year's roster of more than 1,400 kindergarteners has shrunk to just 1,300 students in first grade.

“That causes me concern," Dwyer said, "because that tells me that there may be kids out there that were supposed to be in kindergarten [last year] that maybe didn’t get enrolled this year,” he said.

School leaders in other parts of the state, meanwhile, are reporting increased kindergarten enrollment, according to Mark DiRocco the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Leaders.

Chris Briem with the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research said the enrollment decline reflects demographic shifts within the region.

More than half of PPS students are Black, while about 27 percent of city residents are Black. And according to Briem, there is a “large and seemingly accelerating decline in the Black population within the city.”

University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research

Where are the kids?

Districts are required to make sure that students who live in their area are receiving an education. Verifying that has been especially difficult this year, Dwyer said.

If a student transfers to a charter school — a publicly funded school operated independent of the local public district — that school must notify the home district. Private and parochial schools are not required to notify the home district.

If a student is enrolled in the system but doesn’t show up to school, the district is responsible for tracking the student down. School counselors and social workers make phone calls and sometimes home visits to figure out where the student is. But Dwyer said the district is short-staffed, and with students back in person, those employees are sometimes covering classes.

“I mean, we’ve got principals who are subbing for math teachers because they don’t have a substitute and they don’t have a teacher," he said. "So our primary focus is making sure the students who are in the schools are getting an education. Our next focus is making sure the kids who aren’t there, we figure out where they are and get them to come in."

Reaching kindergarten students is a bigger challenge because they haven’t been in the system yet unless they’ve attended a PPS Pre-K program.

PPS spokesperson Ebony Pugh acknowledged that overall enrollment also may have been impacted by the teaching model the district used last year. It was one of a handful in the region to have taught fully remote for more than a year.

“We do understand that … being closed for as long as we were and other smaller districts or individual private schools were open, that some families who wanted that in-person instruction were able to and could do so did move students,” Pugh said.