Public schools search for answers to enrollment decline

The pandemic may be largely behind us now, but many Minnesota public schools still have a case of long COVID in the form of enrollment declines that hit many districts during the shutdowns. During the last two years, public school enrollment dipped 2.5 percent statewide as parents reacted to online-only classes and lack of socialization forced on students.

The long term prognosis for public school enrollment remains anyone’s guess. But that hasn’t stopped Mankato and other districts from searching for answers as to why so many students left and ways to bring them back, according to the Free Press.

As another school year begins for Mankato Area Public Schools, the district is actively working to get its enrollment numbers back to pre-pandemic levels.

Director of Business Services Tom Sager said right now the district is about 500 students below those levels, and because enrollment numbers directly correlate with funding, that equates to over a $6 million loss in revenue for the district.

“If the students don’t come back, we will have to realign our operating budget next spring to align with that loss of enrollment so that we can maintain our fiscal stability,” he said.

During summer break, school officials met with staff and community members to devise a strategy to stop the bleeding in enrollment and attract students back. But the families who left may be less open to reconsidering their decision given the alternatives available to them.

Sager said that while every year students have multiple choices for their education, the district had more students exercising alternative options during the 2021 school year than what would typically occur in recent history.

“We know where they went. We don’t always know the reasons why,” Sager said. “Sometimes they disclose that, sometimes they don’t. We know that we had many students, more students than normal, choose home-schooling as an option. We had many more students than normal open enroll into other school districts around our perimeter. We also had more students than normal attend non-public schools.”

Superintendent Paul Peterson remains optimistic about Mankato’s chances to rebuild enrollment as the effect of the pandemic fades over time. Yet on the surface it appears the district’s strategic plan might do as effective of a job reminding disaffected parents of why they left as it does of winning them over.

“We know that it’s going to take schools like ours time to build back enrollment to pre-pandemic levels,” he said after Tuesday’s School Board meeting. “We also know it’s going to have to be multifaceted, so first and foremost it’s going to be really important that a district like ours, similar to what you heard tonight, make sure that we’re telling the story of what a good, solid, quality education does for kids and our community.”