John Hay Elementary School used to have an assistant principal and enough funds from Seattle Public Schools to hire a reading specialist to assist struggling students.
Then the pandemic hit. Last year, the Queen Anne school enrolled 38% fewer students than it did before COVID-19. As a result, a third of its teachers were reassigned to other schools.
Student enrollment in Seattle Schools has continued to dwindle the past two years; in the fall, the district is projecting its smallest number of students in seven years. Even before the pandemic, the district had anticipated drops in enrollment because of a decline in birthrates, but officials said the pandemic sped up enrollment losses.
Dropping enrollment can have devastating effects because schools must cut staff if they aren’t needed, leading to tough choices about which teachers stay and which are transferred. SPS shuffles staff around annually to reflect enrollment changes, but usually those changes are minor from year to year.
“For students and families, I think it’s really stressful for them,” said Nicole Silver, John Hay’s principal. “The students are attached to their teachers, and maybe their younger sibling had the same teacher for third grade and they were hoping to have that teacher.”
Many of the educators that were transferred to other schools were newer teachers because of seniority, Silver said. “It’s been really hard because it’s really nice to have a mix in the building.”
Prior to the pandemic, the school in Queen Anne had more than 500 students, Silver said. “It was bursting at the seams,” she said. “We had portables, we had really crowded classes, at one point a classroom was on a stage.”
But over the past three school years, John Hay lost about 200 students.
Some schools have lost teachers “because they didn’t have enough enrollment to justify the number of staff,” said Vivian Song Maritz, Seattle School Board member. “The change has been around specialists and maybe in some instances special education teachers — it really depends on the individual school.”
The Seattle Education Association held a rally in October protesting the changes the district made to special education staff in certain schools. Although no teachers have lost their jobs yet, some schools have fewer special education teachers and instructional aides.
School districts receive funds from the state for every student enrolled. Dramatic enrollment losses create money worries for district officials, and in Seattle, officials aren’t counting on students returning.
Federal and state COVID relief funds did provide enough money to give every SPS elementary school at least a part-time social worker or counselor in the upcoming school year. John Hay will have a part-time social worker and part-time nurse, but no counselor.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a school of 300 or 500, kids need a counselor, kids need a full-time nurse, which almost no school has,” Silver said.
When there isn’t a counselor or social worker on site, those jobs fall to the principal or other staff, Silver said.
Seattle lost 3,238 students from the 2019-20 to 2021-22 school year. And in the fall SPS projects it will lose 812 more, dropping its total enrollment to 48,748 students.
Public school enrollment has fallen throughout the state since the pandemic began, but it’s not clear why Seattle numbers are so dismal.
“We don’t know for sure the reason students leave,” Song Maritz said. “We don’t do exit interviews — we don’t collect that information.” She said anecdotally the district has heard that some parents can’t afford Seattle housing anymore and others left to home school or send their kids to private school. New schools opening, elementary school boundary lines changing, and parents not being satisfied with public schools are also reasons for large enrollment drops.
“As a School Board director, I think it’s important to collect that information to inform our decision making,” she added.
The bulk of the enrollment decline was in the district’s 62 elementary schools. The elementary schools with higher enrollment losses were in the north part of the city, data shows. However, Rising Star Elementary School in the South Beacon Hill neighborhood was the exception.
Out of the district’s 10 K-8 schools, Licton Springs had the highest enrollment drop, about 39 percent since the 2019-20 school year. Catharine Blaine K-8 School enrollment is down by about one-quarter. All other K-8 schools had a 10 percent drop or less.
Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Seattle Catholic Schools saw about a 6% increase in enrollment — the largest enrollment uptick in more than a decade, said Kristin Moore, director of marketing and enrollment for the 72 Catholic schools in Western Washington. About 5 percent of the increase in enrollment was in elementary grades, she said.
“From what we’re hearing … in terms of parents there’s an overall unhappiness with what public schools have been able to deliver,” Moore said. ”A lot of families maybe came to Catholic schools because we were in person or had stronger academic programs.”
Private schools transitioned to in-person classes quicker than most public schools. Schools in the Seattle Archdiocese began in-person classes in the fall of 2020, Moore said. SPS and most other districts didn’t start back in-person until spring 2021 — students had almost a full year of remote learning. Catholic schools nationwide have seen upticks in enrollment, Moore said.
Biggest losses in North Seattle
With the exception of Rising Star, the top five Seattle elementary schools that lost the most students were all in the north end.
John Hay, which had the largest enrollment decline, used to have many international students, Silver said, because tech companies in Seattle recruited overseas. During the pandemic many of those families moved out of state or out of the country.
“I think that’s the main key to our enrollment loss,” Principal Silver said. “During the pandemic people could not come to live here or didn’t have to. The [housing] prices were just too high.”
There are also many John Hay families who live in apartments, and “the cost is so high that it’s not permanent housing,” Silver said. “People come and go.”
Rising Star was affected by the opening of Wing Luke Elementary in 2021, which changed elementary zoning boundaries, said Principal Huyen Lam. Some families opted to go to their neighborhood school, which was no longer Rising Star.
There were also a high number of students experiencing homelessness at Rising Star, Lam said. Transportation was difficult for those families when the pandemic hit, and to make transportation easier, Lam said officials encouraged families experiencing homelessness to transfer to their neighborhood school.
“It does impact our classroom staffing,” Lam said. “This is the first year we had a reduction in three classrooms.”
Some elementaries gained
Seven Seattle elementary schools gained students since the 2019-20 school year. The three schools with the most dramatic enrollment increases were in North Seattle. One school stood out.
Queen Anne Elementary had a 120% increase, according to enrollment data, because it was the only SPS elementary that offered an online program, Song Maritz said. The upcoming school year the students taking online classes will be moved under the Cascade Parent Partnership Program.
Magnolia and Cedar Park elementary schools both had about a 21 percent increase in enrollment.
Magnolia opened in 2019, a reason why enrollment shot up, Song Maritz said. Typically when a new school opens, students in neighboring schools transfer.
“Just having the presence of a brand-new elementary school would naturally, for some families, cause them to shift to that school,” Song Maritz said.
Elementary zoning boundaries changed, which also changed some families’ neighborhood school to Magnolia, Song Maritz added.
Silver did not think John Hay lost very many students to Magnolia.
John Hay is neither a rich school nor a poor school — it lands somewhere in the middle, Silver said, because many parents at the school work and can’t afford to give to fundraisers. But the school was able to keep its reading specialist, even when the district didn’t have enough money to retain the position, because of PTA money.
“Our state is not funding our schools adequately — that was before the pandemic and continues to be,” Silver said. “The district is having to find ways to fund things and there simply just isn’t enough.”