Eschbacher: 5 Things Districts Can Do to Keep Ahead of Population Changes — and Avoid Enrollment, Planning and Budgetary Disasters

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Two neighborhoods in northeast Denver, only three miles apart, are experiencing drastic — and divergent — changes to their communities and schools. The redevelopment of the former Stapleton municipal airport, now in the final phase of adding thousands of single-family homes, has resulted in seven new schools that will serve nearly 8,000 students. Meanwhile, the nearby neighborhoods of Five Points, Cole and Whittier are experiencing among the highest rates of gentrification in the nation, with public school families moving out and more affluent families, who have fewer children on average or are more likely to choose private school, moving in. This is causing the student-age population in these Denver neighborhoods to plummet, and three schools have closed.

Dynamics like this can keep school district leaders up at night, wondering if they have forecast enrollment shifts correctly and planned accordingly. Getting enrollment data wrong could mean millions of dollars in budget shortfalls, overcrowded schools or additional school closures. For urban districts, these dynamics are more complicated than ever before: Rising housing prices in many cities have reached or exceeded the pre-Great Recession peak, impacting families’ housing stability. Birth rates reached another all-time low in 2018, and new kinds of school choices have made enrollment patterns less predictable.

During my seven years as executive director of planning and enrollment services for Denver Public Schools, our urban district was among the fastest-growing in the country, gaining more than 20,000 students over 10 years. Since 2017, that trend has slowed, with growth continuing in some neighborhoods but not others. But our team was well-positioned to deal with these changes because of a series of strategies that allowed us to detect, assess and respond to changes in the student population proactively.

Unfortunately, too many large districts lack the tools to respond nimbly to complex population trends. They can take a cue from Denver and other cities by adopting five practices that can prevent unforeseen enrollment, planning and budgetary disasters. More often than not, districts with these systems in place have adopted versions of the portfolio strategy for district management, with autonomous, accountable schools, equitable parent-choice systems, and a central office that focuses on quality assurance, support and high-level strategic planning rather than day-to-day school decisions. But any district can consider adopting some or all of these strategies, whether or not the “portfolio” model is in place.

 ● Annual school planning processes evaluate enrollment trends and forecasts for all schools in a system, alongside progress toward a set of broader outcomes, such as goals related to school quality and student achievement. This is one of the easiest strategies for any district dealing with enrollment fluctuations to implement.

Traditionally, districts analyze citywide enrollment and building capacity trends with relatively low detail and rigor, and do so infrequently. But student populations can change significantly between evaluation cycles. More successful districts establish annual school planning processes that deeply analyze and publicly report on trends in enrollment, capacity and school performance. Planning cycles typically occur in the fall, after academic performance results are released and enrollment counts are set for the year, but before budgeting begins for the year ahead. These districts link academic outcomes with data related to sustainable enrollment levels, facility condition and capacity, and choice patterns. They disaggregate student data by socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, native language or special education status to reveal changing patterns in student needs and achievement. More sophisticated districts are attuned to varying dynamics of different regions or neighborhoods within the district.

Districts already have access to all the data needed to analyze enrollment and performance annually in a rigorous way, but the information is owned by different teams. Having an analyst or coordinator pull the information and organize it costs very little, particularly after the first year, when the information just needs to be refreshed.

Since 2011, DPS has published an annual Strategic Regional Analysis to inform district and city leaders on the key trends. During a time of rapid growth, we used this report to identify neighborhoods where new schools were needed or student population and demand for schools was on the decline. In several instances, this annual planning analysis was a factor in decisions to consolidate schools due to low enrollment.

Consolidations or closures are among the most emotional experiences for school leaders, educators and community members, and they should not be taken lightly. Using clear data to support those decisions and identifying trends early so changes do not seem reactionary, sudden or illogical makes the process smoother.

 ●  Unified enrollment systems allow families to apply to all public schools in the city using one process. They create more predictable and stable enrollment between spring and fall, generate invaluable information on family preferences and, most importantly, reduce confusion and inequity. The chaotic, decentralized enrollment processes that many large districts use put unnecessary burdens on families. There are often vastly different applications, decision dates, timelines, forms and requirements for different schools. Families might sit for months on waiting lists for multiple schools and choose only at the last possible moment, causing what school leaders call the September shuffle of sudden student roster changes all across the city.

In contrast, families in cities with fully unified enrollment systems can apply to any district, charter or magnet school with one timeline, one application, one lottery system and more supports for navigating the process. Making the enrollment experience easier and fairer for all families especially helps educationally disadvantaged students, whose families may not have the time or resources to navigate confusing enrollment processes that rely on personal connections. Unified enrollment also produces a rich set of data that supports leaders, particularly during times of instability. Demand data show which schools or programs families are most interested in, which can indicate where, geographically or programmatically, a district may need to expand or replicate specific school models. For planning purposes, unified enrollment data help district and school leaders align on the emerging enrollment picture for the year ahead, because enrollment timelines happen more reliably in the spring. This allows the central office to collaborate with school leaders to better understand how student population trends may impact enrollment changes and make necessary budgeting or staffing changes in the spring, instead of as the school year is starting.

Two years ago, Enroll Indy launched to unify enrollment for Indianapolis Public Schools district and charter schools. Before unified enrollment, it was very difficult to get a pulse on enrollment trends across the city, as charter school and district enrollment systems operated in separate silos. More accurate enrollment information across both district and charter schools has supported the replication of higher-performing, high-demand schools, and served as a warning sign when demand for a school is low. In part due to the data from the enrollment system, the district recently overhauled its high school programs by closing underenrolled schools and restructuring four other schools into college- and career-magnet programs.

Moving to a unified system can take more than a year and include technology, policy, community engagement and change management elements that require significant resources to ensure a successful outcome.

 ●  Student-based budgeting funds schools based on enrollment and associated supplemental factors, such as additional support for students needing special education services or English learners. Often, this comes with greater school-level autonomy over budget decisions.

Most districts build budgets using anticipated staffing and programmatic needs, not specific student needs, and offer school leaders minimal control over their total budgets. Because this does not factor in enrollment projections or explicitly consider differences in student needs, it can lead to inequitable funding among schools. These budget methods can also mask the severity of enrollment drops or sudden spikes: If enrollment levels drop and schools become smaller, schools could quickly become financially unstable.

Student-based budgeting allocates funds per student enrolled, adjusting for different educational needs (after meeting core educational requirements). When paired with the annual school planning processes described above, student-based budgeting serves as a key annual check on enrollment. Leaders can consider how schools with large enrollment changes may need modified funding, staffing and space; understand the total amount of funding needed to supplement small school budgets; and weigh potential trade-offs with other funding priorities.

In 2014, Cleveland Metropolitan School District implemented student-based budgeting in conjunction with new school models and a citywide high school choice system. This has allowed money to follow the student to the classroom door, helped the district respond to changes in levels of population growth and encouraged schools to accept a greater number of choice students because they receive additional funding for those students.

 ● Opening new schools and closing existing schools are two central processes that rely on an annual evaluation of student population changes and a forecast of future student and family needs. They also represent the emotional ends of the spectrum: Ribbon-cuttings make for great photo opportunities, while school closures are among the most challenging actions that district leaders have to take. It is important to operate both school openings and closures consistently and logically, so districts have the right amount and types of schools in the right places to best serve all students. Leaders often procrastinate on openings, closings and consolidations and make ad hoc decisions without clear processes and standards. These tasks may not seem urgent when enrollment is stable, but during times of rapid enrollment change, they are essential.

Two things can happen when districts do not have clear processes for opening and closing schools. A district may think a new school is needed because of overcrowding or anticipated population growth in a neighborhood, but by the time it opens, there may be empty seats because the growth forecast was inaccurate, was too short-term or did not account for students choosing other school options. Or, if a district waits too long to close a school, students can be hurt educationally by time spent in an under-resourced building and then left stranded and unsure of where to go next. If districts had higher certainty that an underenrolled school would lose even more students in the future, they could plan a process for closure or consolidation that minimized disruption and ensured students had strong options.

An increasing number of districts have a formalized process that allows for new schools to seek authorization to open or existing schools to set forth a plan for expansion or replication. Well-designed opening processes within a school district should include rigorous analysis of community need, interest in a particular school model and enrollment plans with budgets tied to assumed enrollment levels. In growing areas, a new school in the right place can relieve overcrowding and attract new families. In areas with flat or decreasing student population, the bar for opening a new school will likely be higher, but it is possible that a new school with an in-demand model serving particular populations of students could be beneficial even if enrollment is declining.

Having transparent, consistent, long-term processes and supports for closures is also key to engaging the community in what is already a tough situation. Arbitrary decisions or ones that seem to select closure candidates based on political influence will alienate any potential trust between a district and the community. Districts that use multiple data points, such as enrollment, quality and facilities, combined with community input, can reduce the degree to which students are negatively impacted by closures. Oakland Unified School District’s Blueprint for Quality Schools seeks to address a challenging budget situation that will require several school closures by establishing board policies, publishing relevant data across both district and charter schools, and conducting and publishing survey results, all with clear leadership from the superintendent. Additionally, to help impacted students attend a higher-quality school, many schools are offering an opportunity ticket to improve students’ options through school choice.

 ●  Collaborative organizational structures support the strategies described above. Enrollment management intersects with academics, talent, finance, facilities, assessment, research and more. Collaboration among these internal teams can help a district better respond to changes in student populations.

In many districts, expectations for internal teams are too focused on compliance and efficiency. Each team has its own rules, processes, incentives and cultures, and cross-functional efforts can feel more like a power struggle than a process of insight generation and productive collaboration. More successful districts emphasize intentional collaboration as part of their annual strategy and planning processes. Denver Public Schools’ biweekly Strategic School Decision meetings bring top district leaders together to present on a specific topic. In one discussion of how to minimize disruption to educationally disadvantaged students due to the closing of a large public housing complex, context and options provided by different teams offered a deep understanding of the short- and long-term impact to students and yielded a recommendation to provide additional supports to the school to maintain a vibrant program in light of the neighborhood changes.

Some of these strategies are more difficult to implement than others, but together, they can enable an effective long-term approach to student population changes, instead of lurching from crisis to crisis. Here are some roles that district leaders and partners can play:

 ● Superintendents should understand the long-term enrollment outlook for different regions of their districts, including housing, birth rates and school choice factors. They should challenge their leadership teams to work together to identify potential problems and create durable solutions. In the long term, superintendents should ensure that their departments have the resources, data systems and day-to-day processes to regularly generate enrollment insights and forecast trends in enrollment and family needs.

 ● Board of Education members should ask their superintendent for a risk assessment on how future enrollment changes may impact district finances, operations and academics. Board members should have an in-depth understanding of the dynamics at play in their neighborhoods. In the long term, they should encourage district leaders to take an embedded, proactive stance toward enrollment management. Instead of revisiting long-term plans every four or five years and reacting in shock every fall when enrollment does not meet expectations, board members should support an annual school review to allow community conversations to happen in a timely manner.

 ● Partner organizations, ranging from advocates to government agencies, should seek to draw connections, since housing, health care and transportation all impact the K-12 education system. Improved collaboration can maximize the collective benefits to a city and reduce unintended consequences. These partners can also support the district in challenging community conversations, either through facilitation support, independent data reviews or engagement with families in schools directly impacted by decisions.

School districts may not be able to stop long-term enrollment change, but improving the understanding and impact of these trends can empower district leaders to adapt. Ultimately, a longer-term strategic focus can limit the chances of an enrollment shock, bringing more stability and sustainability to their mission of providing great schools to educate children in every neighborhood.

Brian Eschbacher is an independent consultant focused on long-term planning and enrollment solutions, and former executive director of planning and enrollment services for Denver Public Schools. This piece was supported by Bellwether Education Partners through the eightcities.org project. 

Disclosure: Andy Rotherham co-founded Bellwether Education Partners. He sits on The 74’s board of directors and serves as one of the site’s senior editors.


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