Charter schools added thousands while statewide enrollment dropped

Idaho’s charter schools have added thousands of new students this school year, despite pockets of steep decline and an overall drop in public K-12 enrollment.

Enrollment is down by 8,306 students in Idaho’s school districts since last year. Yet amid a global pandemic, charters still managed to net 5,118 kids, according to State Department of Education numbers.

The overall drop of 3,188 signals the state’s first enrollment decline in decades.

Enrollment matters because it’s tied to how Idaho carves up about $2 billion in state K-12 funding for schools. The state has used an average-daily-attendance metric since 1994.

The enrollment stakes are even higher for charters. Districts enjoy a safeguard in place for enrollment losses. A state policy keeps schools from losing more than 3 percent of their previous year’s funding, no matter how far their enrollments dropped from the year prior.

Charters don’t qualify for that policy, so big enrollment drops fuel heavier financial hits.

Who grew? Mostly virtual charter schools and new charter schools, which together added 4,644 students from last year.

Families have flocked to virtual schools during the pandemic. Here’s a closer look at the five top-growing charters from last year, which were all virtual:

School 

2019-20 Enrollment 2020-21 Enrollment Change / %Change

Idaho Virtual Academy

1,736

3,818

2,082 / +120%

Inspire Virtual Charter 1,048 1,830 782 / +75%
iSucceed Charter High 657 978 321 / +49%
Gem Prep Online 322 575 253 / +79%
Idaho College/Career Readiness Charter 159 293 134 / +84%

Enrollment at new schools also drove this year’s growth among charters. Five first-year charters added a combined 852 kids from last year.

A closer look at enrollments in these schools:

  • Hayden Canyon Charter: 292
  • Island Park Charter: 15
  • Mosaics Public School (Caldwell): 271
  • Doral Academy of Idaho (Meridian): 147
  • Pinecrest Academy of Idaho (Twin Falls): 127

Twenty-nine of 52 existing brick-and-mortar charters also added students from last year, with several aided by federal and private grants earmarked to expand Idaho’s charter sector. These include Treasure Valley Classical Academy and Gem Prep Meridian, which added 113 and 89 students, respectively, since last school year.

Other brick-and-mortar charters that tallied notable growth from last year:

  • Forge International Charter, in Middleton, reported 124 new students, a 48 percent increase from 2019-20.
  • Caldwell-based Elevate Academy added 100 kids, or about 32 percent.
  • Gem Prep Pocatello and Gem Prep Meridian added 96 and 89 kids, increases of 30 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

Who lost students? At least 21 charter schools lost students, with some rounding out their second straight year of heavy declines.

Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center and Boise-based The Village Charter School both battled enrollment losses last year.

The schools nabbed the top two spots for losses this year. A closer look at who filled the top five spots for enrollment drops:

  • Blackfoot lost 104 students, a 19 percent decline from last school year.
  • Enrollment is down by 83 kids, or 25 percent, at The Village.
  • Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy lost 58 students, a nearly 9 percent decline.
  • Ammon’s Monticello Motessori Charter saw 57 kids leave this year, a 21 percent drop.
  • Nampa-based Victory Charter lost 31 kids, or nearly 8 percent.

Leaders at these charters attributed much of their losses to families switching to virtual schools.

“If you look at the huge uptick in online school enrollment, that seems to be where they’re all going,” said Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy principal Dan Nicklay.

Other factors contributed. Blackfoot principal Craig Girard said around 30 percent of his school’s decline stems from a smaller incoming seventh grade class. Yet Girard also pointed to a digital diaspora of students opting for online schools.

Without the state’s 3 percent safeguard in place for charters, steep losses have fueled a series of changes, including cutting positions and expenses.

“Working with my team and the School Board, we were able to make adjustments to our budget (staffing, expense cuts, etc.) to match our current enrollment and return to a near break-even budget,” The Village principal Josh Noteboom told EdNews.

Federal COVID-19 relief funds have also helped, Noteboom added.

Still, Nicklay wonders if students who left his school will ever return: “It’s hard to say whether they’ll ever come back.”

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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