The entrance of Firstline Live Oak Elementary.

NOLA Public Schools’ enrollment dropped from 45,022 students last spring to 43,982 students in the state’s latest official enrollment count, tallied in October and recently released. Those 1,040 students represent roughly a 2.3 overall enrollment percent drop from last school year, following a 3.3 percent drop in enrollment the year prior.

The trend of declining enrollment has led the school district to reevaluate its operational capacity — a complicated undertaking in the unique all-charter district where independent charter schools operate on contracts and the district has limited control to quickly shrink the system by closing schools. 

District officials are working with charter school leaders on what they’ve described as a “right-sizing” plan to ensure that under-enrolled schools aren’t creating a financial burden on the system. NOLA Public Schools officials say that 3,000 seats are unfilled in district charter schools and that number could increase in coming years. 

Four of the city’s roughly 80 schools are slated to close at the end of the school year — two due to academic underperformance and two due to declining enrollment. 

The May closures of James M. Singleton Charter School and Arise Academy were announced last fall. Neither met academic standards for a new charter contract. 

In early January, IDEA Public Schools announced it would close its sole city campus IDEA Oscar Dunn in May and FirstLine Schools announced it would shutter its Live Oak Academy at the end of this school year. Both cited enrollment struggles. 

An upcoming report on city demographics and enrollment trends is expected to shed more light on possible changes that the district could seek to implement in the upcoming year. It will be presented this week at the Orleans Parish School Board’s meeting. 

Enrollment declining around the state

The declining enrollment isn’t unique to the city. According to Census data, Louisiana’s childhood population slightly decreased over the past ten years, and data from the state Department of Education shows that public school enrollment is decreasing. 

Enrollment dropped statewide as well, from 697,337 public school students in the spring of 2021 to 690,092 students in the state’s Oct. 1 enrollment count. That’s a one percent decrease from last year. And it’s a nearly five percent drop from 2016, when the state counted 723,554 public school students.

The Louisiana Department of Education did not respond to several requests for historical enrollment data. 

Three area Catholic schools — St. Mary Magdalen, St. Rita and St. Rosalie — run by the Archdiocese of New Orleans are closing their campuses at the end of this school year, the archdiocese announced last month. NOLA Public School district officials said they’ve seen declining enrollment in private schools as well, though Archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah McDonald said that was not the case. 

“Despite the challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the issues resulting from Hurricane Ida, enrollment at area Catholic schools remained steady, even growing slightly this school year,” McDonald said.

“When enrollment dips below a certain level, that is cause for concern that there may not be the ability at the school to provide the well-rounded Catholic school experience families expect,” she said. “At that point, we work with parish and school leadership to determine next steps, which can result in school mergers or closures, and we work with the families directly to assist them in enrolling in another Catholic school that meets the individual family’s needs.”

Some neighboring parishes have seen a decline in enrollment over the last five years. In 2016, Jefferson Parish enrolled 49,076 students. That dropped to 47,720 students last fall. To the north in St. Tammany Parish, 38,681 were enrolled in 2016. That fell to 37,374 in October of 2021. 

However in St. Bernard Parish, the school system has seen slight growth in the last five years, growing from 7,582 students in 2016 to 7,795 students last fall. 

Absenteeism amid the pandemic

Along with dipping enrollment, schools have struggled with enrolled student attendance throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — navigating illness, quarantines, as well as the unpredictable shifts between virtual and in-person schooling and staff shortages.

Last school year, by mid-January about 9,000 NOLA Public Schools students were reported chronically absent — meaning they had missed 10 or more days of school. That was according to centralized attendance data collected by NOLA Public Schools from its charters. That reporting was prompted by the pandemic, but the district discontinued that effort in March of 2021 because attendance was improving, officials said.

In the 2017-18 school year, the last one unaffected by the pandemic, Orleans Parish had an overall attendance rate of 93.9 percent. In the 2019-20 school year, that slipped to 92 percent, slightly below the state’s average for that year of 93.9 percent. And in the 2020-21 school year, that fell even further to 87.7 percent, lower than the state’s average of 91.7 percent.

With students 5 years of age and older now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination, — which has shortened or in some cases eliminated the need for quarantines — school officials are hopeful attendance rates will improve this school year. But with expanded testing and the brunt of the delta and omicron waves falling during the school year, it’s possible attendance rates could fall farther.

Last month, FirstLine Schools CEO Sabrina Pence said attendance dropped at the five-school network amid the omicron surge.

“We have definitely seen a decline in the month of January,” Pence wrote in an email. “In December, we were averaging 85 – 90% (which is also lower than pre-COVID times). Now, we are averaging around 65% attendance.”

Pence said she believed the drop was due to a number of factors, including higher case counts and resulting quarantines in the omicron surge and some parents who are “wary” of sending their children to school amid high case counts. A lack of access to broadband internet can also cause attendance issues if students are sent home for schooling due to exposure. 

As the city emerges from the omicron surge, attendance rates have continued to increase, Chief Operations Officer Rebekah Cain wrote in a Monday morning email.

“Attendance continues to steadily improve,” she wrote. “We had three schools get into the 90%s for daily attendance last week. Everyone was at least in the 80%s.”

KIPP New Orleans Schools, the city’s largest charter group — enrolling nearly 14 percent of the district’s students — saw similar attendance issues during the omicron surge.

“In the weeks before the holiday break, our network was averaging about 85%,” CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise wrote in a January email. “Last week (first week back after Winter Break), we were at about 64%. For this current week, we are at 73.5%, with the numbers increasing almost every day.”

Rooted School CEO Johnathan Johnson concurred, noting in mid-January that attendance was at roughly 76 percent. 

“That is a historic low for the school. We typically are between 85 to 90 percent,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re connecting it to the surge but since covid we’ve had lower attendance.”

Johnson also said the school’s standard for being considered “present” may be more demanding than other schools.

“We have a pretty rigorous tracking system,” he said. “We require our students to log in if we’re virtual … They have to log into every class. Whereas certain schools take an approach of if you submit your homework you’re present. That has different implications.”

Early Warning System

The district has been developing an “Early Warning System” to track various metrics, including student attendance, class credits and other data that can indicate whether a student is on track to graduate. Such a system would flag students at risk of not graduating on time and help schools know when to intervene to help get them back on track. 

“The NOLA-PS Data Systems & Solutions team is creating a custom data infrastructure solution that will provide new opportunities to support schools across the district with student attendance, credit accumulation, and data quality initiatives that currently aren’t possible with data access lagging six months to a year behind, given current traditional vendor systems,” district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo wrote.

Though the district collected attendance data from its charter schools during the 2020-2021 school year, it suspended that collection in the March of 2021 Alfonzo said. (The district had never before collected attendance data from its independent charter schools.)

“Since vaccinations were well underway last spring and there was a proven track record that COVID-19 was not spreading in schools, the District suspended the collection of biweekly attendance submission reports at the end of March 2021,” she wrote. “At that point, we returned to our standard operating procedure of schools reporting attendance data directly to the state on an annual basis.”

Attendance, however, can play a role in the Early Warning System being developed, she explained. 

“The attendance monitoring and intervention tools will be piloted in the Spring of 2022 with additional development phases expected to continue thereafter,” she wrote. “Ultimately, the expectation is the custom platform will allow schools more flexibility and transparency than traditional vendor systems.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...