Q&A: State Superintendent Carey Wright discusses where 23,000 students went this year

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carey Wright

This school year there are 23,000 fewer students enrolled in public schools, and currently all but 1,156 are accounted for. The Mississippi Department of Education attributes this drop primarily to a decline in kindergarten enrollment and increase in homeschooling.

Public school enrollment in Mississippi has steadily declined in recent years, but the most recent school year (2020-21) showed 23,286 fewer students are enrolled in the public school system this year compared to 2019-20 — a 5{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} decrease from last school year. Statewide enrollment has dropped on average about 5,500 students a year over the past three years before this current year.

Mississippi Today previously reported that the department was working with school attendance officers to locate these 23,000 students. On Monday, a news release from the department said that 4,345 fewer kindergarten students enrolled compared to the same time last year, and homeschool enrollment increased by nearly 6,800 students – jumping from 18,758 to 25,489 students total.

Additionally, 1,603 students enrolled after Sept. 30. Other children have either moved out of state or transferred to private schools. School attendance officers have not validated, or confirmed with evidence, the status of 1,156 students, the release said.

Mississippi Today spoke with Carey Wright, state superintendent of education, on Monday afternoon about the process of finding students who did not re-enroll in public schools.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Mississippi Today: Initially when I looked at the 23,000 students who hadn’t re-enrolled in comparison to the (enrollment) numbers from previous years, it seemed like that was a huge gap. What steps did the department take to try to find the students?

Carey Wright: I asked (the school attendance officers) at the beginning of the year to make sure that we could account for every child that was enrolled in spring and was not here in the fall, and so they got lists from schools. They made home visits. They made calls. They sent letters. They’ve done just a number of things to try to make sure that children are accounted for.

And so even if … we know this child has moved to, let’s say Alabama, well, that’s the reason we use the term “validated the status.” …Even if you’ve known that the child has moved — if the school in Alabama has not requested their records, even though we know that that’s where the child is — we can’t quote unquote validate their status because it’s not an official transfer. If it’s an out of state, then we determine by evidence that other school districts have sent us requesting student records or things of that nature. So that’s a way to validate where children are.

So they’ve done a Herculean job. When you think when we started, north of 23,000 (students unaccounted for) and we’re down to 1,156, they’ve done an amazing job of trying to locate and they will continue to work on validating the status. The issue in Mississippi is that the compulsory age does not start until age six. If parents have enrolled their children in kindergarten, then they are under the official compulsory attendance law. If they have not enrolled their children in kindergarten, there’s really nothing that we can do about parents that decide to keep their kindergarten children at home because they don’t have to start attending schools in Mississippi until they’re age six.

Mississippi Today: Do you think what’s going on with the pandemic has contributed to how, if it has been challenging, to track down students?

Wright: I think it presents its challenges just as in people being fearful of their own health and safety. I think that is certainly added to it. But I think that’s a reason that they’ve also been trying to make calls and send letters and notify as best that they can.

Once children reach the age of 17, then they obviously don’t have to attend school, but between the ages of six and 17, we are responsible… for trying to ensure that everyone is being educated. And that was my biggest concern. If parents had decided because of COVID you keep your kids home and homeschool them, that’s certainly their prerogative. What I didn’t want to happen is just children weren’t getting educated at all. In other words, parents just decided to keep their kids home, but not necessarily enrolling them in homeschooling… That’s something that’s not allowed.

Mississippi Today: Was that a concern for you? And if it was a concern, have those concerns eased a little bit now that you for the most part know where a lot of those students are now?

Wright: Oh, absolutely. The immediate thing that we did was pull enrollment data back from another four to five years. And we’ve never dropped more than like 5,000, maybe 6,000 something anywhere bouncing between that, but to drop in enrollment by 23,000. Yeah, it was very alarming. Interestingly enough, the biggest reductions that we have are in our primary grades, which you know it’s not so surprising. With the fear about just the overall health, I think of young children.

The two largest numbers that we’ve got because they have not returned are kids that moved out of the state or kids that transferred to homeschooling cause that accounted for over 15,000 of the 23,000 right there.

Mississippi Today: I know the implications of declining enrollment for local school districts correlates to their school funding (schools receive funding based on average daily attendance). Are there any other potential challenges that school districts may face because of this?

Wright: Well, I think that’s probably their biggest fear I think is ‘cause they need the funds particularly now if ever because of all the money that they’ve had to expend due to COVID, whether it’s to personal protective equipment (PPE) or whether it’s cleaning school buses on a daily basis, or whether it’s cleaning schools more deeply on a daily basis. I think that those monies had to come out of their pockets already, as well as then trying to ensure that kids were being educated and whether some districts would try to buy devices early, they get them in their hands, et cetera, et cetera. I think that’s been, that’s on the top of everybody’s mind, quite honestly.

Mississippi Today: Is there just anything else that you feel like we didn’t cover or you feel like it’s very important?

Wright: I think it’s the school attendance officers and the districts and teachers that deserve so much credit for being on top of this. Just hats off to the school attendance officers and to the districts and teachers for being so diligent about this. It speaks volumes about our teachers in Mississippi.

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