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Early look at Dallas ISD enrollment figures paints a grim picture

The first glimpse of Dallas ISD’s enrollment in the COVID-19 era is coming into focus, and it isn’t good.

The district, which started virtual classes on Sept. 8, is missing nearly 15,000 students from its original projections for the 2020-21 school year. It’s a gap that — if not rectified — could result in the loss of tens of millions of dollars for DISD.

At stake is state funding that is largely tied to average daily attendance. A significant decrease in such funds would wreak havoc on this year’s $1.64 billion general operating budget, which is based on those original enrollment assumptions.

Funding won’t immediately be affected, however. The Texas Education Agency is allowing districts to receive funding based on projections from the previous three years for the first 12 weeks of the 2020-21 school year, a similar “hold harmless” strategy that the state employed to calculate attendance during Hurricane Harvey.

On Friday, Dallas recorded an total enrollment of 135,504, its best number by far over its first four days of classes. But that figure is about 12% lower than the district’s expected enrollment of 152,472.

District officials — which declined multiple requests for comment on Monday — foreshadowed poor enrollment numbers last week, when the district started online instruction with some hiccups.

At a press conference at the end of the first day of classes, superintendent Michael Hinojosa and the district’s chief technology officer Jack Kelanic explained how nearly 10% of DISD’s expected student body — close to 15,000 students — did not have a district-issued electronic laptop or tablet.

When rushing to push those devices to elementary campuses, which largely did not use technology for instruction in the spring, DISD failed to account for students who were moving up from fifth grade to sixth grade, between 6,000 to 7,000 students.

Later in the week, during a briefing to the board of trustees, Kelanic told trustees that another “major contributing factor” was that the district pre-assigned devices to individual students “at a point in time” over the summer when many students had yet to register.

“We didn’t account for that, so when some students showed up to campus, voila, we didn’t have a device for them,” he said.

Enrollment numbers were down across all campuses, but especially so with the district’s early learning program.

Comparing Friday’s totals with the fourth day of instruction from 2019-20, the district’s pre-kindergarten enrollment was down by more than 37%, almost 4,500 students.

Starting under former superintendent Mike Miles, Dallas ISD has invested heavily in expanding its prekindergarten offerings, not only quadrupling its enrollment, but also focusing its efforts on high-quality programming and teacher training.

District officials have said those efforts have paid dividends, with those participating in the district’s pre-K consistently outperforming their peers in third-grade reading, a key benchmark for student success.

Enrollment losses at high schools were the lowest, at 5.9%, while middle schools and elementary schools were down 8.5% and 8.3% respectively.

Traditionally, the district steadily gains a few thousand students over the first few weeks of classes, as families slowly re-enroll and students trickle in. In recent years, Hinojosa has pointed to the week after Labor Day — roughly three weeks in — as the bellwether on if DISD would meet its enrollment.

Over the five years, DISD’s enrollment has been on a steady decline, dropping from 160,253 in 2014-15 by between 1,000 and 1,800 students per year. The district projected to lose 1,400 students this year, prior to the pandemic.

Getting students back into a classroom setting is critical, and not just because of the missing instruction. DISD has started administering in-person assessment tests to determine each student’s achievement level. Last week, the district began bringing back small groups of students for the 45-minute assessment, starting with the lowest grade levels at each campus and working upward.

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