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Colorado student count grows again, but enrollment drops among younger kids

Students work on algebra problems in a college-level course at Hinkley High School in Aurora.
Students work on algebra problems in a college-level course at Hinkley High School in Aurora.

Colorado’s public school student population rose again this school year, but a decline in the number of kindergarteners and first-graders contributed to more modest growth than in recent years.

The number of preschool through 12th grade students hit 899,112 for the 2015-16 school year, an increase of 1.1 percent over 2014-2015, according to state data released Thursday.

That lagged behind the previous year’s 1.4 increase and the median and average growth rate of 1.4 percent over the past 20 years.

The pecking order of the state’s 15 largest school districts by enrollment did not change, but two districts on that list did report enrollment declines: Pueblo City and Colorado Springs District 11.

Part of the slower growth in the Colorado pupil count can be chalked up to natural fluctuation. Over the past two decades, Colorado’s student population has increased anywhere from 0.8 percent to 2.6 percent, and all points in between. The state has not suffered an enrollment decline since 1988.

But declining birth rates and the youthful face of the state’s new arrivals play a part, too.

Elizabeth Garner, the state demographer, said the roughly 2 percent decline in kindergarten and first-grade enrollment statewide can be explained in part by a five- to six-year trend of declining birth rates.

“We had this thing called the recession — and people honestly stopped having babies,” she said, while also crediting a state birth-control program for reducing teen pregnancy.

At the same time, Colorado’s largest share of new arrivals are 25 to 34 year-olds, many of whom have yet to begin families, Garner said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing this uptick in births in the next year, and then it’ll be five years past that where we start to see changes in the school age population,” she said.

Other details in the newly released data:

  • Breaking down data by race and ethnicity, enrollment growth was greatest with students who identify as being of two or more races — up from 32,707 in 2014-15 to 34,393 in 2015-16.
  • The state’s largest district, Denver Public Schools, grew again, to 90,234 students. However, the gains were not as striking as in previous years. After three straight years of enrollment growth of more than 3 percent, DPS’s pupil count rose 1.6 percent this year — still above the state average.
  • The Byers School District, east of metro Denver, posted the largest enrollment gains by percentage increase of any district, growing 42 percent to 3,035 students. Nearly all of that growth can be accounted for by students enrolling in online courses.
  • Seventeen school districts saw enrollment drop by 5 percentage points or more, most of them rural.
  • The number of students registered in online schools boomed, growing more than 9 percent to 17,060. Students enrolled in online programs account for about 2 percent of Colorado students.

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