The pandemic has taken a toll on enrollment and attendance in Mesa Public Schools while its impact on students’ grades has been mixed.
Administration officials last week detailed the pandemic’s impact for the Governing Board and discussed steps they were planning to address regarding some of its adverse effects, particularly on students’ grades.
While enrollment has dropped by more than 4,500 students over the past two years, most of that decline occurred in the past year. Enrollment fell from 61,344 in 2018-19 to 60,769 in 2019-20 but has now plummeted to 56,807.
One small bright spot that Dr. Robert Carlisle, district director of research and evaluation, cited was a 2.8 percent increase in kindergarten enrollment.
But board member Dr. Joe O’Reilly drew no comfort from that stat, noting overall kindergarten enrollment had dropped by 13.7 percent from a year ago.
Most school districts in Arizona have reported similar decreases in kindergarten enrollment and some education officials have suggested that parents simply decided not to send their youngsters to kindergarten out of fear of COVID-19.
Enrollment is a critical factor in any Arizona school district’s fiscal condition because the state reimburses districts on a per-pupil basis.
And in Mesa’s case, the enrollment decline threatens to adversely impact budgets for both this school year and next because the drop was steepest over the last five weeks, when the 100th day of the school year is clocked.
The 100-day enrollment number impacts a district’s state funding for the rest of the current school year.
The fiscal impact of the enrollment decline was not discussed last week, although administrators warned the board last fall that the district could be facing hard choices in program funding and overall staffing levels when 2021-22 budget development begins in a month or so.
Board member Lara Ellingson noted that in both those previous school years, enrollment increased between January and February.
This year, enrollment dropped over the last six weeks and Ellingson wondered if that was because the district was in an all-virtual learning mode the first two weeks of January.
Carlisle said he had no concrete explanation, noting that in past years, “we got a ton of kids transferring in from charter schools about the 100th day.”
He surmised that this year “charter schools might not be losing enrollment quite like they have in the past years.”
To try and draw families back, district employees have been calling and visiting homes of former students and distributing door hangers with information on re-enrollment or, for families with kindergartners, the benefits of attending MPS schools.
Enrollment decline has been the most pronounced at the high school level, which fell 5 percent since the school year began, and the least in elementary school, where attendance fell by less than 1 percent with kindergarten excluded.
Breaking enrollment down by grade, Carlisle reported that other than kindergarten, the steepest declines between January 2020 and last month occurred in fourth and fifth grade, which each lost more than 10 percent of students, and first grade, which saw a 9.1 percent decline.
Only two grade levels – sophomore and junior year in high school – saw enrollment increases, with 3.6 percent and almost 7 percent, respectively. Carlisle also presented a look at attendance trends and reported that overall absenteeism is greater this school year than in the past.
But absenteeism among remote learners increased substantially from Thanksgiving through the end of 2020. However, since the second semester began last month, absences have trended down to the point where attendance rates are close to even among online and in-class students.
The pandemic’s impact on grades varied.
For example, overall, more students last fall received A’s than during the same time period the last two school years.
But more remote learners got F’s than students in classrooms districtwide, although fewer online learners in high school flunked subjects than their counterparts in junior high and elementary school.
Assistant Superintendent Dr. Randy Mahlerwein told the board that while all schools are addressing failing grades, “in our high schools, it’s really critical because it’s tied into graduation and every year flows into next year” and “it’s going to cause a number of students to be not on track to graduation.”
He said administrators and teachers are taking various measures, such as assessing what students need specifically to recover from the learning gap that has impacted their academic performance.
He also reported there were flaws in the way grades were weighted or entered so that some students who got F’s could be upgraded to a D.
“This was one of the things exposed by COVID,” Mahlerwein said, citing a “system issue” that is being corrected.
“I know the principals I talked to feel a lot better about the weighting issue in their grade books and now it has led into a different conversation about grading and more grading practices,” he added.
He said the district also has pushed to the end of this month final grading for the first semester of the current school year so that students who have been struggling in subjects have more time to catch up.
“Learning doesn’t stop and start – it continues,” Mahlerwein said. “We have a system where on this date, every child has to learn the same thing and our brains don’t work that way.”
He also indicated the need for “two different kinds of conversations” with students who are failing because some simply quit remote learning when they ran into problems; those students “just need a little more personalized learning,” he said.
Mahlerwein also said teachers were “stressed’ by having to toggle between in-class and remote learners.
“We were stressing our teachers on both sides,” he said. “They were teaching in a remote environment while they were teaching in person and we’ve never trained them to do that job. This is a new environment and to be honest, it wasn’t fair to our teachers and our work staff to put them in that situation.”
But he also said, “Our teachers have done remote remarkably well with the technology and they’ve really adapted and I think we’re seeing a lot better instruction and a lot more engagement.”
Ellingson also said she wonders if the disruption of normal social life in high schools adversely impacted students’ achievement by creating a morale problem.
“The kids can’t support each other at a basketball game or can’t go to a choir concert or to dances and things to look forward to and I wonder if that’s had a great impact as well on their grades,” she said, adding she wants a mechanism – like a town hall with students – where officials can talk with students to get their take on grade problems.