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Report: Students in poverty increase

Colorado's K-12 student enrollment grew by nearly 2 percent this year.

Colorado’s K-12 student enrollment grew by nearly 2 percent this year.

State enrollment figures released Monday show the number of Colorado students living in poverty climbed this year at its highest rate since at least 2003 as families grappled with the dismal economy.

As of Oct. 1, 39 percent of students in kindergarten through grade 12 were eligible for participation in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, a common indicator for poverty.

To qualify for the program, a family of four must report an annual income below $40,793.

Colorado’s overall enrollment was up 1.7 percent this fall, to 832,368 students, while the poverty rate was up 3.08 percent. Enrollment growth has typically exceeded growth in poverty in recent years.

Fourteen school districts reported double-digit increases in their poverty rates, most of them small rural districts such as Briggsdale, northeast of Greeley, and Ignacio, on the state’s southern border.

At the Arickaree School District in Anton, two hours east of Denver, enrollment dropped ten kids to 113 students while the poverty rate rose 13 percent.

Gena Ramey, who is both principal and superintendent, said the community has struggled with jobs after the lone restaurant shut down and a nearby dairy, a key employer, dealt with falling milk prices.

“The economy is kind of bad all the way around,” she said, adding of stimulus dollars, “They come out to the car companies and the big banks but I don’t think they make their way down to real people.”

Among metro-area districts, increases in poverty rates ranged from 5.25 percent for Englewood to just .14 percent for Boulder. Denver Public Schools had the second highest jump in poverty rate, or 5 percent, increasing the overall DPS poverty rate from 67 percent to 72 percent.

Poverty’s impact on funding

Colorado doles out school funding based on enrollment, giving an additional amount for students considered “at-risk,” calculated largely on the number who are eligible for free lunch.

But state lawmakers, facing severe budget shortages, are opting not to pay districts for greater-than-projected increases in sheer numbers and in poverty. (See Ed News story on this issue.)

In DPS, the gap between what the district expected to receive for its growth in enrollment and poverty, and what it is receiving, is $2.4 million, said David Suppes, the district’s chief operating officer. Statewide, the gap is $20 million. 

“We didn’t plan for this but we think we can absorb it,” Suppes said. The $2.4 million is on top of the $10.4 million hit that DPS is taking as lawmakers pull back 1.9 percent in funding they gave to districts last session but ordered frozen.

“Basically, that’s $13 million in this current year’s budget that we’re not getting,” Suppes said. “We’re waiting to see the March (revenue) forecast to see if there will be more” cuts.

Poverty factors into federal grant dollars flowing into districts as well. The most significant grant program, Title 1, also uses the federal free and reduced-price lunch program as a proxy for poverty.

In Denver, the number of students on free and reduced lunch in schools using Title 1 money – those schools with the highest poverty rates – increased by 8 percent this year, Suppes said.

At the same time, Colorado’s share of Title 1 funding is expected to decline next year, meaning Denver’s portion is likely to drop. Stimulus money is expected to remain stable.

“We have a lot more students to serve,” Suppes said, “and less money to serve them.”

Among all metro-area districts, Commerce City and Sheridan reported the highest poverty rates, with each at 83 percent. The district with the highest poverty rate in the state is Center, near Alamosa, at 90 percent.

Other highlights of the state’s enrollment report:

Statewide trends

Overall student enrollment has increased every year since 1989 and the nearly 2 percent jump from 2008 to 2009 continued the trend.

Grade level: The number of students enrolled in preschool has skyrocketed in the past decade, growing 332 percent from fall 1999 to fall 2009. (The growth was 1,548 percent between fall 1989 and fall 2009.) This fall, 55,479 students are enrolled in preschool programs.

Meanwhile, the only grade level showing a decrease in the past decade was kindergarten, which dropped 15 percent or 7,000 children. Every other grade saw increases, particularly grades 10, 11 and 12. Enrollment in grade 12 has grown 39 percent in the past decade.

Ethnicity: The percent of minority students statewide continued the overall pattern of growth shown since at least 1997. The numbers of Hispanic and Asian students are growing at the fastest rate, followed by American Indian, black and white students.

In the past decade, the percentage of Colorado students who are Hispanic has grown by about 9 points, to 29 percent of the total enrollment. The percentage of white students has fallen by about 9 points as well, to 61 percent of the total.

Metro area trends

Denver’s metro-area districts, which now serve 56.2 percent of all Colorado students, are outpacing growth in the rest of the state. Between fall 1999 and fall 2009, enrollment in the 15 school districts in Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties grew by 20.49 percent compared to 13.98 percent for all other Colorado school districts.

Ethnicity: While many metro area districts reported gains in their percentages of minority students, Denver Public Schools continued to be an exception. Minority students made up 80 percent of DPS’ enrollment in 2005, declining to 75 percent this year. Other metro area districts, particularly Cherry Creek and Aurora, reported increases.

Rapid gains: Brighton school district nearly tripled in size in the past ten years, from 5,306 students in fall 1999 to 14,469 in fall 2009. That’s a percentage increase of 172.59 percent. Other rapid gainers were Douglas County at 84.71 percent, St. Vrain Valley at 42.53 percent and Adams Five-Star schools at 38.09 percent.

Biggest losses: Englewood schools dropped more than a quarter of their enrollment between 1999 and 2009, declining 28.64 percent from 4,378 students to 3,124. Other districts posting declines were Sheridan, a drop of 18.99 percent, followed by Westminster 50 with an enrollment loss of 13.79 percent.

Home-schooling trends

The small number of Colorado students identified as home-schooled declined slightly – down 2.74 percent – between 2008 and 2009. Just 6,501 students were identified as being educated at home in fall 2009, out of a statewide enrollment of 832,368. El Paso County reported the highest number of home-schoolers with 1,912, followed by Larimer County at 602 and Douglas County at 581.

A report on private school membership has not yet been released.

Click here to view the Colorado Department of Education enrollment reports for 2009.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.