Desiree Martin and her children Hayden, 8, right, and Elliot, 11, are pictured July 28 at an enrollment fair held by Kansas City Public Schools at Manual Career and Technical Center in Kansas City.
(File photo) Desiree Martin and her children Hayden, 8, right, and Elliot, 11, are pictured July 28 at an enrollment fair held by Kansas City Public Schools at Manual Career and Technical Center in Kansas City. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

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As we enter the third school year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kansas City Public Schools is intensifying marketing efforts to encourage families to register ahead of the first day of classes Aug. 23. 

The district’s projections show a 1% drop in enrollment for the coming school year that disproportionately affects incoming kindergarten and first-grade classes.

While some families may have switched to other schools — or merely be slow to enroll — KCPS is concerned some children are missing out entirely on education because of the pandemic.

“Can you afford (another) year without your child being educationally developed?” said Major Stevie Brooks, the district’s director of admissions and enrollment.

Touting COVID-19 safety precautions, services from transportation to mentoring, and expanded early childhood education, KCPS is attempting to reach both families who disengaged during online learning and those who switched to other schools.

There’s no deadline to enroll, even after the school year starts. The district’s projections are based on the number of students it expects by Sept. 30. 

A chart presented July 21 at KCPS’ regular school board meeting predicted an overall enrollment decrease of 167, a drop of a bit more than 1% from last year’s total enrollment. 

But the decline disproportionately impacts certain grades. 

Kindergarten and first grade are both projected to lose more than 120 students each, amounting to a decrease of 13.8% and 10.4% from last year’s enrollment, respectively.  

The projections are based on how many students have already enrolled this year, as well as how many last-minute enrollments happened between July 12 and Sept. 30 last year — with the assumption that this year will be similar. 

KCPS was also still advertising additional early childhood education spots through the end of July. The more than 1,000 slots are usually full with a waiting list by this time of year.

Pre-K classrooms in neighborhood schools will likely fill in the next few weeks as families finish incomplete applications, said Julia Wendt, KCPS early learning officer. 

But as of Aug. 4, the district’s Woodland and Richardson Head Start programs were only about 30% full, with close to 150 of 460 spots taken. A KCPS pre-K classroom located at Operation Breakthrough also had 18 spots remaining. Eligibility at those three locations is based on family income.

Challenges of declining school enrollment

KCPS wants to make contact with families who lost touch during the pandemic.

“We lost a huge amount of students that either didn’t go to school or didn’t tie in for distance learning,” said Brooks, who is concerned about the lost opportunities for learning and socialization when students don’t attend school. 

Major Stevie Brooks, director of admissions and enrollment at Kansas City Public Schools, sits in a conference room at Manual Career and Technical Center during a district enrollment fair July 28 in Kansas City. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

Problems with enrollment aren’t restricted to Kansas City — or to the upcoming school year. The Kansas City Beacon reported in February that public school enrollment in both Kansas and Missouri had dropped by about 3%

While some students transferred to other schools or switched to homeschooling, it’s unclear where others went. Lower grades were especially hard hit. 

Declining enrollment is often concerning for districts because state funding is based on the number of students who attend

Elle Moxley, public relations coordinator for the district, said KCPS isn’t too worried about the financial repercussions of this year’s projected decline because it’s still in the range the district had planned for.

The pandemic also complicated KCPS’ competition with charter schools — independent public schools that are state-funded and free to attend but operate outside the control of the district. 

Some charter schools were able to stay open during COVID-19 because of their smaller size, while KCPS switched to remote learning for safety reasons, Brooks said. 

While the charter schools were able to provide a service that families wanted at the time, Brooks said students and families who switched to charters “don’t realize they lost out on resources” that are available at KCPS.

Connecting families to vaccines, technology and transportation

A KCPS enrollment fair July 26-31 at Manual Career and Technical Center, which Brooks said will become an annual event, was designed to highlight the district’s services and community connections.

Information tables represented every KCPS school, community partners and district programs including transportation, technology, legal services, language services, food services, mentoring, COVID-19 vaccines, other immunizations and services for “students in transition” — those experiencing an unstable living situation.   

Nick Martin attended the fair to help enroll his children Elliot, 11, and Hayden, 8, who formerly attended public school in Grain Valley.

Martin’s initial impression of KCPS was that it was inclusive and offered a lot of support — an impression he said was increased by the fair.

“They seem pretty supportive to the teachers and the students. This event is teaching us more about that than we even knew.” 

A guardian signs himself and a Kansas City Public Schools student into an enrollment fair held by KCPS on July 28 at Manual Career and Technical Center in Kansas City. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

Reactions like Martin’s were exactly what Brooks intended. 

The hope is that families have a good experience, learn about services they didn’t know existed and then tell others about the district, Brooks said.

“If we treat the parents that are coming now with respect and customer service, the greatest way that we’re going to communicate is through word of mouth,” Brooks said. “We give them refreshments, we give them prizes, we give them information that they didn’t know. I talked to a lot of them. They’re appreciative.” 

Pandemic impact on early childhood education

The pandemic created challenges for programs that haven’t struggled with enrollment in the past.

In late July, when the district’s early childhood education programs are typically full with waiting lists, KCPS was pushing to increase enrollment. 

In-person education is especially important for young children, Wendt said.

“Children at this age learn best when they’re interacting with their peers, their teachers, their environment,” she said. “They learn through play, and they learn through those relationships. And that’s the best place for our children to be learning. We want to be open fully in person, and we want children in seats.”

Staff members are calling and texting families with siblings already enrolled in the district, as well as holding virtual and in-person open houses and tours, Wendt said. They have also mailed fliers and worked with libraries, pastors and community centers to spread the word.

The district expanded its number of pre-K openings to fill in service gaps, such as in the northeast, Wendt said. But spots in the south have filled up more quickly, while spots in midtown, the east side, downtown and north have stayed open.

Some parents may still have safety concerns about sending children to school, Wendt said. The challenges of remote learning for younger children also may have kept them out of school and could contribute to their slow return.

“Knowing that we’re opening fully in person Aug. 23, I think we will see families come back in person as they had hoped to last year when we were closed,” she said.

Brooks was confident children of all ages will return to school once the district gets back to seminormal operations

“They will come,” Brooks said. “Because they miss this. And they build great relationships with our teachers, with our principals and with each other.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.