Kindergarten enrollments rebound, but questions linger

Hundreds of kindergarten-aged children stayed home during the pandemic-altered 2020-21 school year, and a picture of the impacts is still emerging.

Enrollment numbers rebounded this school year, but limited data and a year fraught with kindergarten no-shows and remote and hybrid learning have some educators scrambling for answers and solutions.

“We’re still wrapping our heads around it,” said Ammon Elementary principal Gene Smith, who saw fall 2021 reading proficiencies among his school’s first graders — the prior year’s kindergartners — reach just 31%, about 20 percentage points below the state average.

The school has beefed up targeting individual learning needs this year, Smith stressed, but he pointed to a range of other challenges plaguing students who stayed home last school year — and those who didn’t. “We’ve seen a range of impacts from the pandemic on many of our younger learners.”

An 867-student increase

Kindergarten enrollment climbed statewide to 21,994 this year, up 867 children from last year’s 21,127, according to the State Department of Education. The upswing accompanies an enrollment hike across K-12 grades.

Last school year’s drop among kindergartners — and across K-12 — was considerable, especially for one of the nation’s fastest-growing states. Kindergarten enrollments alone fell 813 students from 2019-20 to 2020-21. They grew by 453 from 2018-19 to 2019-20, before COVID’s heaviest impacts reached schools. And the state’s K-12 enrollments were on an upward trajectory for more than 20 years prior to the pandemic.

Still, 2020-21’s one-year decline makes sense. Statewide K-12 enrollment fell by over 3,000 students as COVID-19 shuttered schools and shifted learning online for thousands.

A hefty drop among last year’s kindergartners was also no surprise. Kindergarten remains optional in Idaho, opening the door for last year’s parents to homeschool, skip the year entirely or hold their kids back in attempts to wait out the pandemic.

But it wasn’t just this year’s incoming kindergarten cohort that rebounded. Last year’s cohort moved on to first grade in unusually strong numbers, a possible sign that families who kept their kindergartners home last year — for whatever reason — enrolled them in first grade this year.

Last year’s kindergarten cohort jumped to 22,878, up a whopping 1,751-student increase, as they moved to first grade after the summer. Enrollment growth from kindergarten to first grade isn’t unusual in Idaho. From 2019-20 to 2020-21, the number grew by 128 kids, and jumped 1,221 a year before that.

Uncertainty over the numbers

But gaining an accurate readout on what hundreds of last year’s kindergarten no-shows did during the pandemic is tough. Idaho doesn’t regulate or monitor homeschooling, so it’s unclear each year how many kids participate, and to what extent.

And gaining an accurate picture at the local level can be tricky.

The Boise School District doesn’t have any “hard data” on whether last year’s kindergartners were held back, homeschooled or jumped right into first grade this school year, spokesman Dan Hollar told EdNews.

Boise leaders know “anecdotally” that some students shifted to private schooling and homeschooling last year, but Hollar didn’t provide numbers.

Idaho’s largest district, West Ada, referenced students’ ages for clues. Students can enroll in kindergarten at age 5. This school year, 724 6-year-olds and two 7-year-olds enrolled in the district’s kindergartens, according to numbers from spokeswoman Charalee Jackson. The district has 2,422 kindergartners spread across 33 kindergartens.

An influx of kindergartners older than the minimum age of 5 could be an indication that many were held back. Or not.

The district hasn’t determined how many students were 6 or older in prior years. And relying on these numbers alone is shaky, since parents can hold their kids back on any given year.

Idaho Falls School District spokeswoman Margaret Wimborne pointed to nearly 100 new local kindergartners this school year. But more insights on the numbers would require more “digging,” she said.

Leaders in the Bonneville and Coeur d’Alene districts did not respond to questions about local kindergarten enrollments.

What test scores and experts tell us

Idaho’s early reading test offers some insights into last school year’s impacts on kindergartners.

K-3 students take the Idaho Reading Indicator in the fall and again in the spring. Spring results show how far students have progressed in reading during the school year. Fall scores are usually lower, and indicate how many students start the school year ready to read.

Fall scores for this year’s first-graders — last year’s kindergartners — are one place to look for impacts of last year’s COVID-fraught school year.

Just 46% of that group returned to school reading at grade level, state numbers show. That’s five percentage points below the 51% average for all grades on the same round of tests.

But this fall’s first grade scores were better than 2020’s, when they dipped to a six-year low of just 41.7% — before the pandemic’s heaviest impacts hit K-12. And incoming kindergartners, not first-graders, posted the lowest average scores for all other grades tested this fall, at just 40.8 percent — the lowest proficiency rate for that grade since at least 2015.

And it’s hard to say how other factors are impacting scores. First grade fall reading scores plummeted from 63.3% to 42.9% in 2018 after changes to the test in 2017. Kindergarten scores dropped by more than five percentage points that same year. Scores for either grade haven’t cracked 50% since.

One of Idaho’s top early learning experts believes that COVID impacted early learning in various ways last school year. But for her, low scores have a lot to do with a longer-running issue.

For years, Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, and other early learning advocates have pushed for state funding for both preschool and full-day kindergarten — neither of which have gained traction in the Statehouse despite repeated efforts.

Idaho funds half-day kindergarten, but devotes no money to pre-K. To Oppenheimer and others, the pandemic’s impacts over the last two years only add fuel to what they view as an already inadequate early learning system.

“Kids here are getting hit harder than in other places because of that,” she said.

Out of 165 districts and charters that responded to a 2021 EdNews survey, 71 said they offer all-day kindergarten full time, while 56 more offer it on modified schedules, including some with four-day school weeks and others with shortened school days. Idaho offers no state funding for Pre-K. Click here for more.

Smith agreed, at least in part. On any given year, he said, kindergarten teachers at his elementary schools are already crunched to cover all the content they’re expected to in a half-day program.

And that was before his district’s decision last school school year to shift all learning to a remote setting for three months in response to rising coronavirus case numbers.

But Smith’s elementary kindergartners and first graders saw a 16-percentage-point and 11-percentage-point increase, respectively, on the fall 2021 IRI compared to the fall 2020 IRI. Scores improved for the youngest learners, despite a year of masking, hybrid and remote learning.

Yet Smith says he sees the pandemic’s impacts. Like homeschooling, it’s impossible to say how COVID-19 hampered pre-schooling statewide last year because the state doesn’t track it. And while his incoming kindergartners posted 50% IRI proficiency this fall, up from under 34% last fall, he pointed to hard-to-measure declines in student social skills and maturity.

Fewer local parents pursuing preschool options and fewer pre-school-aged kids interacting with each other last school year could be to blame, he guessed. “I know that’s only anecdotal, but we’ve definitely seen a difference on the social side of things with this year’s kindergartners.”

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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