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Colorado public schools hope students return

From 2019 to 2020, statewide enrollment in public schools dropped 3.3 percent during the pandemic.

WESTMINSTER, Colo. — If you build it, will they come? That's the question for Westminster Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Pam Swanson as she opens a new campus for the fall semester.

"I do think we're at a pivotal point," Swanson said.

Westminster Public Schools worked for three years to open Orchard Park Academy, a new school building replacing on an old one at the corner of 71st Avenue and Zuni Street.

"I think this is turning the page for the next generation in our community," Swanson said.

Orchard Park is building with state-of-the-art designs like modern science labs and overhead LED lighting that can change colors. It's a much bigger building with double the capacity of the old building in a district that lost significant enrollment during the summer.

"We may not see a rebound of all those kids, but we're going to get as many as we can," Swanson said.

In 2020, the Colorado Department of Education states that across the state enrollment in public schools dropped by 30,024 students, a decrease of 3.3 percent compared to 2019. CDE states this was the first decrease of public school enrollment in three decades.

"It kept me awake when I started realizing what the impacts were going to be," Shannon Bingham, a demographer, said.

Bingham is president of Western Demographics. He studies things like new construction, housing prices, and birth rates to help school districts predict their population trends.

RELATED: State standardized tests show low participation, decline 'across the board' during pandemic

"This district (Westminster) and several other districts that have moderate and lower income families, we see a lot of people that had to move around in order to keep a job, get a job," Bingham said.

Douglas County lost 4,326 students while neighboring Jefferson County dropped enrollment by 3,960, according to CDE. Denver dropped by 3,051 students. Boulder decreased by 1,760. But, none of these districts saw a bigger percentage drop than Westminster Public Schools where losing 717 students meant a 8.5 percent decline in student enrollment.

"Because they had the opportunity to try something else," Bingham said.

Swanson said she wasn't surprised as much as worried.

"I said to principals, I said we've got to go out and find out where our kids went," Swanson said. "I want every kid served who's still in our footprint here."

Statewide, CDE numbers show that the biggest loss was in the youngest grades. In 2020, preschool enrollment dropped by 23.3 percent and kindergarten enrollment dropped by 9.1 percent. At the same time, homeschooling doubled during COVID, according to CDE, from 7,880 students in 2019 to 15,773 in 2020.

"Children, parents, and grandparents living at home," Bingham said. "So, a lot of families made a decision in order to protect their seniors that they would keep their children out of school."

Bingham predicts about 70 percent who left will return.

"We're hoping they'll come back in year two, meaning the 2022-23 school year," Bingham said. "We'll see some sort of normalization."

According to the the Legislative Council Staff study on School Finance in 2020, each student equals an average of $8,500 in funding. For Westminster that's a loss of more than $6 million.

 "The money is one thing and yes you can't run a school district if you don't have kids. But, more than that, I worry about having a generation that is not lost or set back that will affect them into their adulthood," Swanson said.

So, the district will continue to build new schools. Swanson says Westminster will continue a social media and marketing campaign aimed at bringing families back and she has a shiny, new building they can use.

"I think we will continue to try to be creative and innovative to meet the demand," Swanson said.

RELATED: DPS on stopping the COVID academic slide: 'It's not going to be easy'

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