ATLANTA — Fulton County Schools experienced a “COVID bounce” in enrollment this school year as students gradually returned to classrooms after months of virtual learning, homeschooling or private school education.
The slight uptick won’t bring numbers back to pre-pandemic levels or slow a decade-long drop in enrollment, according to district officials.
“Last school year we saw a substantial decline of more than 3,500 students due to challenges faced [in 2020] during the onset of COVID-19,” said Yngrid Huff, executive director of operational planning. “While some regions are seeing a bounce back of enrollment, population lulls continue this year, especially at the primary grade levels.”
This year the district enrolled a total of 90,415 students, up 39 students from the 2020-21 school year totals, but still well below the expected 92,000 students.
Huff noted even though the increase was small, it did mark the district’s first increase in enrollment in five years.
Next year Fulton County Schools expects to drop below 90,000 students – a threshold not seen since 2008.
Huff pointed to a number of factors which contribute to declining enrollment, aside from pandemic disruptors. These include housing shortages which have elevated home values and prices, a declining birth rate coupled with an aging population, and increasing educational options outside public schools.
Within the metro area, Fulton and Cherokee county school systems are the few districts with declining enrollment. Cobb, Dekalb, Forsyth, Gwinnet and Henry County school systems are expected to grow in the 2022-23 school year.
Forsyth County Schools with its booming population will likely be the state’s fifth largest school district next year. Some of that growth is tied to Fulton County departures.
Fulton County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney said housing affordability and availability play a significant role in where students attend school.
“I had staff analyze [student movement], and it was somewhere around 150 students coming in from Forsyth and about 500 [leaving] for Forsyth…so I do think housing prices impact [enrollment],” Looney said during the March School Board meeting.
Opportunities and challenges
More than half of the student population in the Fulton County Schools System attends school in the North Fulton region. This year 46,534 students were enrolled in the 47 schools within the region – a decrease of 230 students from last year.
Breaking down the numbers, elementary enrollment increased by 306 students, while middle and high schools decreased by 388 and 148 students, respectively.
Huff said the “cohort” growth in the region is a positive sign. A cohort number is established in kindergarten and tracked through graduation. If 500 kids enroll in kindergarten, and 500 kids graduate that represents zero cohort growth.
In recent years, the number of students graduating was far above the number coming into kindergarten. This is the root of the enrollment decline over the past decade in Fulton County Schools, explained Huff.
“Last year cohort growth in the [North Fulton] region returned to positive, growing more than 1500 students…the most growth experienced in the last 10 years,” Huff said. “This signals a return of students who may have exited the school system last school year due to COVID-19.”
This year the incoming 9th grade class was much larger than the number of exiting 8th graders, a sign that new families with older children are moving into the region. Huff noted there were 200 new home closings in North Fulton just in the third quarter of 2021 alone.
The greatest impact to public school enrollment, especially in elementary grades, is private school attendance. Huff noted a recent private school report showed about 11,800 Fulton County students attend private school, nearly 6,300 of them residing in North Fulton. As this information is self-reported, the numbers could be even higher.
While home-schooling increased considerably during the pandemic, Huff said those numbers are starting to turn around.
“This year homeschooling has declined [below] pre-pandemic levels,” Huff said, noting in North Fulton home school enrollment decreased by 522. That was more than South Fulton and Sandy Springs numbers combined.