The Akron City School District was sent into a tailspin when it found out that its Kindergarten enrollment numbers fell from 1757 in 2019 to 1405 last school year.
The district sought to figure out the reasons for the decline in enrollment and more importantly, it wanted to do everything in its power to try to reverse that trend. It is far more beneficial financially for the district to have higher enrollment numbers. Numbers were down for all grades in the district for 2020, but it was the Kindergarten ones that concerned them the most.
The decline in Kindergarten enrollment from the start of the pandemic was a similar trend across nearly every public school district in Ohio, according to data from the Ohio Department of Education. That same data shows that a majority of private schools in Ohio actually saw increases in Kindergarten enrollment over the course of the pandemic.
“Some of the drop is definitely attributed to families deciding they didn’t want to send their young kindergarten students to have their first school year be in a pandemic,” assistant superintendent and chief academic officer Ellen McWilliams-Woods said. “So some parents decided to hold their kids back and wait another year until this next fall to send them.”
She said that the district was expecting the numbers to drop once the pandemic began, but not to the extent that it happened. In the past year, the district has lost 352 kindergarten students as the number enrolled fell from 1757 to 1405. That is the lowest number of her 13-year tenure as assistant superintendent. From 2015 to 2019, enrollment was steadily increasing, but the pandemic threw all of that progress away.
The root of the district’s enrollment problem stems from one main issue; parents want their kids to receive the best education possible and the fear of the virus coupled with the idea of a bizarre online start to an early childhood education led some to delay their kids development.
“One of the things we did years ago was we expanded our preschool seats,” McWilliams-Woods said. “We established a relationship early on with the families and that makes it easier for them to stay.”
That plan worked for years until the pandemic struck and parents pulled their kids out of the public school district at an alarming rate.
The district did have a good infrastructure in place to handle the changes that came about because of the pandemic, but it has been focused for the last few months on getting the enrollment numbers back to a normal level.
Before the pandemic, 350 of the 2100 families had their children on remote learning plans. Then the pandemic hit and everyone had to learn online. The district happened to be ahead of the curve, as it has had a remote learning option available for over 15 years now.
“We had no idea all these years ago that we were preparing for a pandemic,” McWilliams-Woods said. “So we were very fortunate. We were actually in a much better position then most districts. We had the infrastructure for online learning built years ago when we started buying all kids their own computers and converted all of the curriculum digitally.”
She said that she was surprised to see that the level of engagement with online learning over the past year was very high, kids were connecting really well online with their teachers. The district measures learning engagement by using feedback from parents and testing scores.
The district strives to have a diverse teaching staff to match its diverse student population. It also provides tutors and interpreters to students that need them.
“Our goal is to prepare these kids to succeed later on in life,” said Kellen Thompson, a Kindergarten teacher who has taught at several Akron City Schools over the past five years. “I try to be the best role model I can be for these kids. We even teach them some valuable life skills and manners that they can use in their personal lives, such as learning how to tie a tie and holding the door for women or elderly people.”
Thompson said the hardest thing about teaching during the pandemic is trying to find ways to make assignments more interactive for students. He said it was much easier designing classwork for in-person classes, but he has adjusted well to the changes that have come about with remote teaching.
According to data from the Ohio Department of Education, approximately 47% of the students enrolled in the Akron City School District in 2020 identify as Black. 10% identify with multiple races. Slightly less than 9% of the student body identifies as asian and about 5% as latino. 29.7% identify as white.
It happens to be one of the most diverse districts in the state of Ohio and it has made it a priority to fully represent its population. The district even has a policy in place to ensure that its teachers buy a certain percentage of products that support black/minority owned businesses, for items like school supplies.
“I believe all children should receive access to an education,” McWilliams-Woods said.
She is an avid supporter of the public school system of education, having started her career in the Akron City School District as a teacher in 1989. She worked her way up to becoming the person in charge of managing the curriculum and served in several other key leadership positions in her 32 years for the district. She even enrolled her three kids in the district over the years, they have all since gone on to graduate from college.
She is retiring at the end of June. She served the last 13 years as the assistant superintendent and she is more than proud of all that she accomplished.
McWilliams-Woods said in a letter to staff after announcing her eventual retirement on March 20, “The most important decision every leader needs to make is knowing when it is time to get out of the way to let the next educational revolution flourish.”
Olivia Morales, the mother of 8-year-old Oscar Morales, is confident that she made the right choice enrolling her kid in the Akron City School District. Oscar has been learning online via the district’s curriculum for the past three years and that has been a resounding success.
“My son is doing so much better with a more personalized learning plan,” Olivia said. “Oscar didn’t used to enjoy school, but now he does and it makes me happy. He is excited to join his virtual classroom and he doesn’t get bored by the curriculum anymore.”
Eventually, Olivia hopes that her son can get more comfortable with an in-person learning environment, but she is not rushing that development.
In the meantime, she just wants Oscar to finish this school year on a good note and she is excited for whatever challenges the fall will bring.
McWilliams-Woods said the district expects its Kindergarten enrollment numbers to skyrocket in the coming fall, as people get vaccinated and become more willing to go out in public. That will help to solve the biggest problem that the district is currently facing.