What’s causing enrollment to fall in Highland schools?

Enrollment for Highland District 5 has been trending downward for at least the past six years, and has dropped again in 2023.

In August 2018, enrollment in District 5 schools totaled 2,878. It dropped by more than 50 students within two years to 2,821, then edged upward to 2,833 in 2021. Since then it’s been trending downward again, with 2,790 in 2022 and 2,776 estimated this fall.

That’s a loss of more than 100 students in the past six years.

Highland isn’t alone. As of early 2023, St. Louis city schools had lost nearly 3,000 students and 5,500 fewer students attended St. Louis county schools, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

An analysis conducted by the Associated Press, Stanford University and led by a Stanford professor found that overall enrollment dropped by more than 700,000 nationwide during the pandemic. Some did go to private schools: about 103,000, along with 184,000 who stayed with homeschooling.

The numbers also accounted for students who moved out of state and the lowering birth rates leading to fewer young children entering school than in years past.

But approximately 230,000 students in 21 states had vanished from school rosters. The students didn’t move out of state or enroll in private school, nor did they register as homeschooled, according to AP.

In Highland’s case, Superintendent Mike Sutton said he is not sure why the numbers are trending downward, but he doesn’t think it will continue.

“I anticipate an uptick in the enrollment over the next couple of years,” Sutton said.

Sutton noted that the number of private school offerings in the area have increased, but that more families are choosing to homeschool — and he doesn’t believe the state does a good job of tracking families who choose that route.

“A parent who requests homeschooling simply makes the request with no formal method of tracking those students, so they can be easily lost in the system,” Sutton said.

As to why homeschooling is more popular, Sutton said he believes it may be a reaction to “the politicalization of education, and many parents don’t want anything to do with that.”

Nationally, homeschooling is estimated to be up 30 percent since before the pandemic, according to the PBS NewsHour. The report specifies Illinois as one of the more loosely regulated states: parents don’t even have to legally notify the school district before homeschooling.

Other states, including Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, require parents to turn in curriculums and assessments.