With student enrollment declining by more than 40% between 9th and 12th grades, public high school in Kansas City feels more like a leaky pipe than a saturated marketplace. Are we asking the right questions?
One of the biggest questions in our ongoing high school conversation is: don’t we already have too many?
During the 2016-2017 school year there were 14 public schools serving about 5,800 students. The biggest, East, served ~1000 students. The smallest, Allen Village, served less than 200. Several schools had empty seats.
Right now in Kansas City there are at least three new high school initiatives underway.
Does Kansas City really need more high school options? Shouldn’t we just try to fill the seats we have?
Since we live in a choice system, I thought it would be interesting to look at the enrollment choices families and students are making as they move through our public school system.
Let’s start by looking at the Class of 2017.
The Class of 2017
It’s Fall 2004. About three thousand students show up for their first day of Kindergarten in both KCPS and charter schools.
As these students move through the system year-to-year, class enrollment begins to shrink: by the time they reach sixth grade, the Class of 2017 is down to 2,000 students.
Enrollment declines until ninth grade, when this cohort gains students (research shows that more students repeat 9th grade than any other, resulting in a “ninth-grade bump”).
This bump, however, is followed by an enrollment cliff – a 30% drop – where the Class of 2017 loses more than 500 students between 9th and 10th grade. This enrollment drop represents the largest single loss of students – both in absolute numbers and by percentage – in this cohort’s K-12 experience. And it happens during high school.
By senior year, Fall 2016, the Class of 2017 is just 1100 students, one-third of its original size. And this is months before graduation.
Overall, Class of 2017 enrollment shrinks by almost 40% between grades 9 and 12 – a loss of 710 students over four years.
And between Kindergarten and 12th grade, enrollment shrinks by 1,847 students – more than 60%.
What about other graduating classes?
This enrollment profile is illuminating, but represents the experience of just one cohort of students as they move through the system.
What does the data look like, on average, for the last five graduating classes, going back to 2013? And how do these enrollment stories differ between KCPS and charter schools?
Here’s a graph that summarizes year-to-year enrollment for the last five graduating classes within KCPS boundaries, from Kindergarten through 12th grade.
The story is remarkably consistent: for the classes of 2013 through 2017 there’s a steady decrease in enrollment from fall of Kindergarten year through fall of 8th grade.
After a bump in 9th grade, enrollment declines again – by 47%, on average, between 9th and 12th grade. (Click here to see year-to-year data for all five classes).
Here’s another look at the same data, broken out by school sector (KCPS and charter).
As these five cohorts move through the system, the charter sector, on average, gains students every year until grade 7. Starting in 8th grade, charter enrollment begins to decline.
KCPS, on average, loses enrollment every year except for grade 9.
High school is the only place on our K-12 continuum that both KCPS and charter schools lose student enrollment overall. Key take-away: High school isn’t just a KCPS or a charter problem.
Why does this matter?
Context is important for any conversation. Over the past several years the number of students choosing public high school within KCPS boundaries has decreased. Of those enrolled, nearly 5 of 10 students exit the system, on average, between the fall of their 9th and 12th grades. And the number of students who actually make it through to graduation is even lower.
Where are these students going? Enrollment numbers alone can’t tell us. Some are leaving the district altogether. Others are going to private schools. Far too many are dropping out entirely.
It’s against this backdrop that the overall high school debate in Kansas City is taking place.
Based on these data I’m not sure that “Do we have too many high schools?” is the right question to be asking. Looking closely at the numbers, high school in Kansas City feels more like a leaky pipe than a saturated marketplace.
A better question might be: does Kansas City have enough quality public high school options, high schools that families want to send their kids to -and where kids want to be – that are doing great things for students of all socio-economic backgrounds?
The scope of this problem requires more than a one school solution. How can we work together to fix it?