Jun. 26—Tina Launey's daughter and Ingrid Dysinger's son both attended preschool at Northside Learning Center, a day care in Chattanooga's North Shore neighborhood that serves children 5 and under.
This fall, the 6-year-olds will return to face-to-face learning in Hamilton County Schools: one in first grade and one in kindergarten.
Both children were part of a "pre-K plus" program offered by the day care, where students attended preschool each day in class sizes of five or six, and a few of them enrolled in kindergarten through Hamilton County Schools' virtual learning option, HCS at Home.
Launey's daughter Hannah was enrolled in HCS at Home while attending the learning center, while Dysinger's son took part in preschool but unenrolled from face-to-face kindergarten after the first week.
With difficulties surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and structuring work, school and other activities from home, kindergarten enrollment dropped nationwide and locally during the 2020-21 school year. For families unsure of virtual learning and skeptical of enrolling students face-to-face during the pandemic, new alternatives cropped up to make the most of the milestone school year.
BY THE NUMBERS
Hamilton County school board members and district administrators brought up declines in kindergarten enrollment in multiple school board meetings during the spring semester. Ultimately, the district's overall enrollment declined 1,000 students compared to the previous year, and the district had 273 fewer kindergarten students than the year before, said district communications officer Cody Patterson.
The district's budget for the upcoming year holds 51 teaching positions in grades K-8 with the assumption that students will return this fall.
Concerns about the pandemic likely factored into the reduced kindergarten enrollment this year, said Karen Glenn, director of Students Taking a Right Stand and safe learning at Hamilton County Schools. However, parents delaying kindergarten enrollment occurred before the pandemic, too.
"We have some students that are enrolled in pre-K, and many of those students are ready for kindergarten, but we've had some parents that have started their students in school and then they recognize 'OK, my child is really not ready for this' for whatever reason, and they may opt to change their enrollment status or they may decide that they need to do some more things at home before they enroll them in school," Glenn said.
A May 2021 report from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt University studied six districts across the state in fall 2020. Data from the report shows a 12% decrease in kindergarten enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020.
Reasons for this decline include parents postponing enrollment into the lowest grades or parents removing students from district schools for alternatives like home schooling or non-public school, according to the report.
When it comes to tracking where prospective Hamilton County Schools kindergarten students went, Glenn said pre-K students don't typically pull out of formal education, but for new kindergarteners, the district couldn't track students who weren't in the system in the first place.
"If they have not enrolled in school, we have no way of knowing that they're supposed to be enrolled," Glenn said. "If they've not been enrolled in pre-K or they've never been enrolled in our school system, we don't have any way of knowing that they actually exist, so we can't really speculate or go out and find them if we don't know that they were supposed to have been our students."
Hamilton County Schools follows a tiered process for students who might be truant once they reach five unexcused absences, Glenn said, and mandatory attendance begins at age 6 through age 17. Truancy increased across all grade levels last year, and Glenn said that health and safety concerns about COVID-19 contributed to it, along with the use of new virtual platforms for the first time.
"The distance learning code for tracking attendance was new and as our educators and our families were navigating all of these new processes, we don't deny the fact that there could have been some errors in some of what was tracked. We did try to go back and capture everything that we anticipated, but everything was new," Glenn said.
MAKING IT WORK
Launey said she and her husband work full time and knew they would need day care for Hannah. She talked with the day care about creating a kindergarten class, where Hannah could both attend virtual kindergarten and participate in preschool, and the facility was open to the idea.
"Doing face-to-face schooling was not a viable option because I knew that there were going to be days, and that they could be many, when she would have to be at home doing everything on Zoom, because that's what everybody would be doing, and I knew there probably was not going to be a lot of predictability and when that would happen," Launey said.
"So I considered holding her back. She was a young kindergartener, she turned 5 in early July, so I definitely could have gotten away with holding her back, but she's a very bright little girl, and she was really ready for more than she was getting, intellectually speaking, in preschool, like she was ready for academic content."
Dysinger had similar reasoning for sending her son to the day care — she worked full-time from home and wouldn't be able to assist him during lessons over Zoom and work simultaneously.
"We were OK with the fact that it wasn't a true kindergarten curriculum because we felt like they will get that, you know, once they do enter kindergarten, from my standpoint. So, I just felt that the aspect of the social, just being him being with other kids, totally outweighed him being at my home and us being frustrated trying to figure it out with work, and I just couldn't jeopardize my own job," Dysinger said.
The program ran daily from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. starting in May 2020. A teacher at the center would look after a small group of children and oversee them doing kindergarten work through HCS at Home.
Molly Randolph's daughter Margaret attended preschool and virtual kindergarten at Northside Learning Center and will start first grade this fall. She and her husband work full time and considered hiring a nanny but wanted Margaret to safely interact with other kids her age.
"So we thought it was a safer compromise, I guess is the way, because we knew it was a compromise. The nanny would have been the safest option, but it seems like it would also speak to her mental health of being able to go to school," Randolph said. "She's gone to preschool since she was 12 weeks old, so it's kind of what she's used to."
PREPARING FOR FALL
Glenn said she thinks kindergarten enrollment will rise from last year's dip due to easing COVID protocols. With incoming first graders coming back to school with different kindergarten experiences, she said the district's Summer REACH program offers an opportunity to make up for the mix of learning models.
"I don't know to what degree it would be increased, but I would think that the parents may be a little bit more comfortable with their students in formal education, and that variable that causes numbers to drop would be removed," Glenn said. "So we'd still have some variables with kindergarten enrollment, but a piece of that being related to COVID should improve enrollment in kindergarten."
During the Hamilton district's first week of kindergarten registration in April, registration numbers came close to reaching the pre-pandemic level in the 2019-20 school year at about 1,800 students.
The virtual kindergarten program at Northside Learning Center concluded at the end of the school year, and the three students are enrolled in day camps this summer. Dysinger said she thinks her son will do well in face-to-face kindergarten this fall since he's had daily social interactions over the past year and through camp.
"I think if anything, I'm not really concerned necessarily because he has had, for the past year, that day-to-day interaction with children, other teachers, and he has not had any of the social restrictions that so many of the other ones had," Dysinger said.
Along with Summer REACH, Hamilton County Schools and the Tennessee Department of Education have pushed for improved literacy among K-2 students to reach reading proficiency by third grade.
In May, the state launched a free program to distribute reading booklets, called decodables, to the homes of K-2 students across the state, and 10,300 K-3 students in HCS will receive packs of books this summer through a partnership between Governor's Early Literacy Foundation and Scholastic.
Launey said she feels Hannah is ready for first grade; she is participating in camp this summer and was excited to tour her school for the first time at the end of last year. Even with the interactions last year and camp this summer, Launey said she has some concerns about academics next year.
"I am worried that we will struggle with some deficit, particularly in reading, when she starts first grade, but we're just going to have to take that ... as it comes, and if it ends up being the case that we need to have her repeat first grade, we will do that," Launey said. "If we're able to put any interventions in place to keep that from happening, then we absolutely will."
Randolph said last year's program went well, but that she also worries about Margaret's transition to first grade since some students went to school face-to-face most of last year.
"It's almost like first grade is going to be her kindergarten in a lot of ways, because she stayed in a preschool environment," Randolph said. "I'm sure she would have grown up a little bit more had she been going to a bigger school, and so that was a bit of a trade-off. So I think she'll do beautifully, but I'm still nervous about it."
Contact Anika Chaturvedi at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.