Dori: What’s behind the big enrollment drop in Seattle schools?


When Seattle’s mother, Ashley Bede, moved to Laurelhurst six years ago, the local public elementary school was a major attraction.

Now her two children are in private school and her family is part of a disturbing trend Public Schools in Seattle: A significant and sustained decline in student enrollments.

Bede’s family is not alone.

Since 2019, Seattle schools have seen a 6.4% drop in enrollment, district reports show. If projections for the 2022-23 school year hold true, the district could see an 8% drop from its previous peak. That drop is more than double the nationwide drop of 3.4% over the same period.

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In absolute numbers, Seattle schools plan to have 48,748 students return to the classroom this fall. That’s down from a peak of 52,793 just three years ago.

Enrollment numbers are tied to statewide student financial aid; A fall means less money for the schools. Often this means moving teachers from schools with fewer students.

Bede told The Dori Monson Show Thursday that the decision to leave her family’s neighborhood school behind wasn’t easy. When they first bought their home six years ago, Bede said, “It was in large part because of Laurelhurst Elementary.”

“When I was on tour, it looked incredible,” said Bede, who serves on diversity committees for both her college alma mater and her children’s current school.

After their first tour of their assigned school, “I was really happy with the diversity numbers — that was a big draw,” she said.

But after further research and chatting with friends, she continued, “It wasn’t what I was hoping for.”

What was missing? asked Dory.

“I’m a really big believer in public schools — but I just felt like the resources weren’t there,” Bede told Doris’s audience.

“Teachers are the most important part of any system,” she replied. “If teachers don’t get the support they need to do their best, then we are failing both our educators and our children.”

“Overloaded” educators lack “the infrastructure” to teach students who are learning above or below average, Bede said.

While there aren’t any exact statistics showing why enrollments have declined, Doris listeners said there are many causes.

The county points to an expected decline due to a lower birth rate. Some parents blame safety and health concerns from COVID for keeping their kids out of Seattle public schools.

Other parents have told Dori that they are concerned about the county’s poor test results. Results from Washington’s 2021 Smarter Balanced Assessments show that only 30% of students in grades 4 through 11 in public schools nationwide met math standards. That’s a 20% decrease from 2019. About 52% of the same students met English standards in 2021 — 9% down from 2019.

Meanwhile, Dori says, many of those parents tell him they’re frustrated that the district overemphasizes social justice issues at the expense of the core curriculum.

“There are ways,” Bede believes, “to integrate (social justice) issues without compromising the core curriculum.”

Meanwhile, the Seattle mom said she and many other parents are watching the drop in enrollments because they know what it means financially for students and families who remain in underfunded schools.

“I want to believe in the public school system as a matter of principle,” Bede said, “but the increase in families moving to private schools just makes me nervous.”

Listen to Dori Monson on weekday afternoons from 12pm to 3pm on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.


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