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The Madison Metropolitan School District is projecting another loss of enrollment next school year.

After two years of large enrollment drops in the Madison Metropolitan School District, officials are predicting a continued, though less dramatic, loss of students next year.

The district’s Institutional Research & Evaluation office prepared a report this month that attempts to navigate the difficult prediction environment the COVID-19 pandemic has created. This year, for example, officials had predicted an increase of 76 students, but instead the district saw a loss of 482 students down to 25,396.

“Although we believe our projection methodology is strong, projections are inherently a starting place and a best guess that are built on a set of assumptions regarding conditions in and beyond our control,” director of research Brianne Monahan told the School Board Monday night. “Over the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic added a bunch of uncertainty to those sets of assumptions which have increased the complexity of the projections.”

Next year, IRE is predicting a 158-student decline, with the district falling to 25,238 students.

MMSD’s enrollment dropped by more than 1,000 from the 2019-20 school year to 2020-21, when much of the year was virtual. In the years prior, the district had seen much smaller decreases — 95 students in 2018-19 and 33 in 2019-20.

While officials have pointed to the long-term trend of slowly declining birth rates and the pandemic as the main reasons for the big drops the past two years, some board members said the district needs to do a deeper dive on the reasons behind the worrisome trend.

“We can’t just blame declining birth rates for declining enrollment in MMSD,” board member Cris Carusi said, noting that some neighboring districts have rebounded from their enrollment drop in 2020-21.

Board member Savion Castro cautioned against focusing too much on those comparisons, stressing that the district needs to “work to serve the students in front of us.”

“This conversation about enrollment is a heavy conversation with large backdrops of white flight, of segregation and of what families we cater to as a school district,” Castro said. “It’s critical that we work to serve the students in front of us and that we continue to center and uplift the students that have been historically marginalized in our system and end the trend of trying to cater to the most wealthy and privileged in our city and really center those who have been left behind historically.”

Public schools statewide saw a downward trend along with MMSD, with a loss of 4,311 students down to 814,101, a 0.53% drop. Last year, public schools saw a drop of 25,742, or 3.05%.

IRE made three assumptions in its modeling for future projections: that the COVID-19 pandemic will be at a different stage in 2022-23, with MMSD continuing to offer both in-person and virtual instruction; kindergarten and 4K students will enroll at a normal rate in 2022-23 rather than the lower rate they have the past two years; and that grades 1-12 students who left the district in 2020-21 or 2021-22 will not return.

“The foundation of this is built on what you find in the industry,” quantitative analyst Grady Brown said. “But we also knew that the last two years have been rather unique, so we actually went back to folks in the industry and said, ‘Hey, how are you adjusting your model? What changes should we bring back to our model?’”

The report from IRE noted that there were large disparities among schools, with some experiencing enrollment increases and others decreases.

Both Sandburg and Shorewood elementary schools lost more than 50 students from last school year, with Shorewood seeing the highest decrease for the second year in a row. Orchard Ridge Elementary School, meanwhile, had an increase of 44 students — the highest in the district.

Among middle schools, Jefferson has 53 fewer students, Toki has 44 fewer and Hamilton has 34 fewer. The only middle school with an increase was O’Keeffe with 10 more students than last year.

Three of the four attendance-area high schools saw an increase in enrollment: East with 47 more students, Memorial with 42 and West with 22. La Follette, however, has 20 fewer students.

Shabazz has four fewer students than a year ago, while Capital has an increase of 33 students.

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