Public school enrollment still down, even as rural districts grow

Smaller districts in Snohomish County seem to be recovering more quickly — and gaining students — than their urban counterparts.

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EVERETT — How the pandemic affected your local school’s enrollment depends on where you live.

Data released by the state superintendent on Friday indicates schools in some of Snohomish County’s most rural communities are growing, even as urban districts struggle to recover from pandemic-related losses.

Overall, public school enrollment is still down from pre-pandemic years. The number of students in the county decreased about 4.4%, or about 5,000 students fewer in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade than at the height of enrollment, according to state data. Statewide enrollment followed a similar trend, down 4% this school year, compared to 2019-20, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in a January press conference.

“We are on the incline once again, but I want to be clear I do not anticipate a rapid recovery in student enrollments,” Reykdal said.

The question on everyone’s mind right now is where those students went, said W. Les Kendrick, a demographer with Educational Data Solutions in Seattle. Kendrick works with several districts in the region to prepare enrollment projections.

Enrollment losses are “much worse than I would have thought, and I did not predict there would be this poor of recovery from the pandemic,” Kendrick said.

State reports show an increase in “home-based instruction,” so some students probably left public schools for home-school options, Kendrick said. Others might have opted for private school and online learning academies, while some may have moved out of state altogether.

“There are select private schools where we have seen increases, but not necessarily everywhere,” Kendrick said. “And there may just be more kids homeschooling. … We just don’t know for sure.”

Although public school enrollment hasn’t rebounded in Snohomish County, recovery varies widely between districts, Kendrick said. In fact, some districts actually have more students now than before COVID.

That’s the case for Granite Falls, Sultan, Lakewood, Lake Stevens and Stanwood-Camano, according to state data.

Four of those five districts also appear in the top five smallest districts in Snohomish County. Granite Falls, for example, has about 2,300 students, up 7.7% from 2019-20.

“I think the current trend is just more housing development in the outlying regions, and it’s more affordable there,” Kendrick said. “So you see places (growing) like Arlington, Stanwood-Camano and even little Granite Falls.”

Some of those students might be relocating from larger districts in the county. For example, some families who left the Mukilteo School District indicated they were moving north to a more rural community, said Diane Bradford, the district’s spokesperson.

Although those moves don’t account for all of the district’s enrollment losses — the 15,000-student district is still down about 5.7% from pre-pandemic days — they do follow an anecdotal trend in the region, she said.

“During the pandemic, we did see some families who moved from more urban or suburban areas out to more rural areas,” Bradford said. “So that’s why I think some of our neighboring large school districts are seeing similar enrollment drops, but some of our smaller more bedroom communities are seeing an increased, or at least neutral, enrollment.”

The pattern might be powered by a new approach to the work world, Kendrick said. The pandemic opened more opportunities for remote work, and some families factored that flexibility into home purchases.

“Some people may not have to commute everyday, so living farther out is probably not a big deal,” Kendrick said.

Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.

Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035;; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.

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