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Ahead of an unusual school year, registration in Anchorage schools points to dropping enrollment

Anchorage School District building on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Enrollment in the Anchorage School District has had a slow start this year, and if it doesn’t pick up, it could result in a hefty financial impact.

Superintendent Deena Bishop told the school board Tuesday that enrollment numbers are “significantly down” from where they’ve been at this same time in prior years. About 5,000 fewer students have enrolled in the district’s schools so far this summer compared with 2019 and 2018, she said.

“It was fairly steady the last two years; however, we’ve taken a major dip,” Bishop said.

The number of students who are transferring out of the district has also jumped. As of Tuesday afternoon, a total of 660 transferred, compared to just 52 last year. Of those, 474 have switched to an Alaska state correspondence school, or home school, and 186 went to a private school or left the state.

Two weeks remain before the school year begins on Aug. 20, Bishop cautioned. A little more than 1,700 student registrations are in process but have not yet been completed, she said.

The district announced last week that it would begin the school year with online-only classes because the coronavirus risk level has gone up.

Students can pick from three options and remain in the school district this year:

• They can sign up for their regular school, which starts online but may change to a mix of in-person and online classes or in-person only as the COVID-19 risk changes.

• They can choose the district’s new virtual program, which is designed like a home school but keeps the student enrolled in their neighborhood school.

• They can choose one of the district’s three other, already established home school programs.

Families may be slow to register because they are still choosing the option that will work best for their specific situation, district officials said.

“Parents have really big decisions to make, so I don’t know that we can hurry it,” deputy superintendent Mark Stock said of the registration process.

The enrollment process also has some major differences from previous years, since families must now schedule appointments instead of dropping in and must go through a health screening before entering school buildings. That slows the enrollment process down, Bishop said. It is possible to fully enroll online, but many families want face-to-face appointments with district counselors.

Anchorage School District Chief Financial Officer Jim Anderson said it’s too soon to tell just how large of an impact the pandemic will have on the school’s finances. Public schools get money through a formula which is based on school enrollment, and so any time that drops, a school has less money for its programs.

Each year, school administrators factor in an enrollment buffer of between 50 to 500 students as they prepare for the coming year, Bishop said.

This drop is “significant compared to that,” she said.

The best way to ensure that the district’s programs continue in the future is for families to sign up for regular school or the virtual school, she said.

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