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Enrollment at St. Louis-area school districts continues to decline

The pandemic exacerbated an already declining pattern.
Credit: smolaw11 - stock.adobe.com

ST. LOUIS — Late last year, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released data that outlined a 3.2% decrease in public school enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year compared with the prior three-year average.

This reflects as many as 29,000 students in the state of Missouri who were not enrolled in the 2021 school year, compared with the year before. DESE attributed the decline to the impact of COVID-19.

The St. Louis region is experiencing a similar trend, and it's not new.

“During the pandemic, we've seen huge fluctuations in everyday schooling, and that has encompassed areas including student enrollment,” said Cameron Anglum, assistant professor of education policy and equity at Saint Louis University. “Some students have stayed at home, we've seen increases in home-school figures, some families have chosen to send their kids to private schools, etc.”

Each year, the St. Louis Business Journal collects data on the largest school districts in the region, including enrollment, the number of teachers, the number of schools and the size of their operating budgets. The data gives us insight into the region's education system by providing a snapshot of the largest school districts in a given year.

From the 2019-2020 school year to the 2020-2021 school year, enrollment at the top school districts in St. Louis fell 1.8%. Though the percentage is small, it reflects about a 5,000-student drop in enrollment.

The pandemic exacerbated an already declining pattern. Enrollment in St. Louis-area public schools has been on the decline for years, at an average rate of 0.2% since 2013. In 2013, St. Louis’ top 25 school districts combined for enrollment of 272,292. This year, the number had fallen to 264,317.

The decline isn’t one-size-fits-all, however. While enrollment at the St. Louis Public School District fell by 14% from 2016 to 2021, districts in faster-growing parts of the region are seeing swings in the other direction. St. Charles County, with a population that grew 11% from 2010 to 2019, has two school districts with substantial enrollment gains in the five-year period between 2016 and 2021: Wentzille R-IV School District at 9% and School District of the City of St. Charles R-VI at 11%.

Anglum and colleagues at Saint Louis University found that in the city of St. Louis, children under 18 represent 70% of the city’s population decline. Census data confirms this: The city's population fell from 319,000 in 2010 to 301,000 in 2019, a 6% decline. But the population of those aged 5 to 19 fell from 57,000 to 44,000, a 24% decline.

Read the full story and explore interactive graphs with details on more school districts on the St. Louis Business Journal website.

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