ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Tanesha Grant has a personal lesson learned about schooling in the pandemic.
TANESHA GRANT: I'm sorry to put down this myth that in-person learning is best, but that's not true.
SHAPIRO: Over the last two years, we've heard from lots of parents desperate to get their kids back into the classroom. But for Grant's 14-year-old son, remote schooling has been a silver lining in the pandemic. He's excelling, and she's worried about COVID. So when their school district said every student had to return to the classroom, she said no.
GRANT: The school has basically been giving my son work on Google Classrooms. But for the marking period, you know, when we had the teacher parent conference, you know, when I talked to his teachers, you know, a couple of them was clearly upset about the fact that my son was doing the work but wouldn't get the credit because he wasn't coming into in-person learning. So they're penalizing us.
SHAPIRO: Grant lives in Harlem, N.Y., and founded a group called Parents Supporting Parents back in 2000. This year the group has been advocating for a permanent remote schooling option.
GRANT: A lot of our families are traumatized by the virus, by the pandemic. And, you know, their children are aware of that. And I have children that are telling their parents, I don't want to go to school because I don't want to get the virus and come home and kill you.
SHAPIRO: And this was all before omicron was even a factor. On Sunday New York City had more than 5,700 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Now, Grant has not officially disenrolled her son from the school system, but thousands of parents across the country have. And many of them point to some of the same frustrations as Grant. In New York City, school enrollment fell by about 38,000 students last school year, and they dropped another 13,000 this year. Similar trends are playing out in California...
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KEN WAYNE: California's public school system is now seeing more of the damaging effects of the pandemic. New figures released today show a sharp drop in enrollment.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We can now confirm what many people already suspected. Public school enrollment dropped this year in Minnesota.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Enrollment for Chicago Public Schools dropped for a 10th straight year. New numbers...
SHAPIRO: In Chicago, dropping enrollment was already a problem before COVID, according to Pedro Martinez, CEO of Chicago Public Schools.
PEDRO MARTINEZ: Pre-pandemic, we were already seeing enrollment decline. So what happened during COVID is we saw an increase in the number of children that didn't come.
SHAPIRO: And lower enrollment can mean less funding. CONSIDER THIS - an NPR investigation shows the drop in public school enrollment during the first year of the pandemic was not temporary. Coming up, we'll hear how schools are trying to win students back and where some parents and students are turning instead.
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SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Monday, December 20.
It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. NPR's education team spent this fall gathering school data and interviewing superintendents to figure out what's going on with enrollment. Education reporter Cory Turner takes it from here.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: NPR collected data from hundreds of districts across the country. The resulting sample is not representative or comprehensive, but the numbers and interviews nevertheless show some clear patterns - the big one that most of the districts we surveyed are still in a pandemic enrollment hole. To understand why, you need to know a few things about those missing students.
MICHAEL HINOJOSA: Half the kids we lost were pre-K kids.
TURNER: Michael Hinojosa runs the schools in Dallas, Texas, and says many preschool parents there simply held their kids back last year. And that's why federal data show nationwide, preschool and kindergarten enrollment dropped 13% between 2019 and 2020. So preparing for this fall, Hinojosa and his team spent the spring and summer advertising. They put up billboards with preschoolers dressed like a teacher, a police officer and a doctor.
HINOJOSA: I mean, a pre-Ker with a stethoscope and a doctor's jacket to say, look; these kids are going to become doctors, but if they don't come back to school, they're going to fall further behind.
TURNER: And this fall, Dallas did see a bump in preschool enrollment, as did many places, though they're still not where they were before COVID. The head of Chicago Public Schools, Pedro Martinez, says some kids aren't back this year because their families enrolled them elsewhere - in charter schools or private schools or moved out of district. Parents and caregivers wanted their kids in school full time, he says. And they worried the public schools wouldn't be open or stay open.
MARTINEZ: And so we saw a couple thousand students that transferred over to private schools in the city, assuring the family that they would be open in person no matter what.
TURNER: We also heard a lot about older students who didn't log on for remote learning last year but didn't change schools either. They just disappeared. Well, district leaders told us that this summer they went looking for those teens. John Davis, the chief of schools in Baltimore, says they used federal relief dollars to pay school staff to call students and families and knock on doors.
JOHN DAVIS: What you're doing is you're looking at kids with the worst attendance in your school and talking to the family, like, we're going to be back in person - right? - at the end of August or September, and come back into whatever the school is, and, like, let's do this.
TURNER: And Davis says those efforts helped prevent another big drop in Baltimore, though they, too, are not yet back to their pre-pandemic enrollment. We heard about one more challenge for schools trying to reconnect with older students this fall.
LESLI MYERS-SMALL: A lot of my principals were saying, Dr. Small, we're losing kids. They're telling us, I have to work, and they're working during the school day.
TURNER: Lesli Myers-Small runs the schools in Rochester, N.Y., and says many of these students are supporting their families.
MYERS-SMALL: We also knew that we were fighting against survival and poverty.
TURNER: Several superintendents told us their teams have been asking businesses to give these teens later hours. When that's not an option...
ERRICK GREENE: School does not have to happen in the hours in which they happen right now.
TURNER: Errick Greene is superintendent in Jackson, Miss., and says for students who have to work, he's trying to make school more flexible.
GREENE: Late afternoon, early evening, weekends - if there's a piece of this that is asynchronous, then the world is open to us.
TURNER: And we heard this from school leaders around the country - that the pandemic set them back, and recovery will take more than a year or two, but that it has also allowed them to creatively embrace an idea that has bothered educators for years - that it's time to throw out the old one-size-fits-all model of school and to better meet students and families wherever they're at.
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SHAPIRO: That's NPR education reporter Cory Turner. Home schooling is becoming a growing preference to meet students' needs. A common narrative is that the families that typically home-school are white and evangelical, but Black families are increasingly choosing to home-school their children. Kyra Miles from member station WBHM reports on why some in Alabama are taking their children's education into their own hands.
KYRA MILES, BYLINE: Once it set in for Didakeje Griffin that her kids wouldn't be going back to public school in March 2020...
DIDAKEJE GRIFFIN: I don't know. It was like a lightbulb moment.
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GRIFFIN: And ultimately, what I realized is that the pandemic just gave us an opportunity to do what we needed to do anyway, which is home schooling.
MILES: Three things made Griffin decide to start. First, she wanted to protect her kids from racism and bullies. She also wanted them to understand their cultural history.
GRIFFIN: And number three is our freedom. I want to have time to cultivate my children's African American, their Nigerian, history and culture in them first before anybody tries to tell them who they are.
MILES: She says COVID might have been her catalyst for home schooling...
GRIFFIN: But it has not been the reason that we kept going.
MILES: The Census Bureau reported that in April 2020, 3% of Black households home-schooled their children, and by October that same year, it was up to 16%. Those numbers might not be completely accurate because a lot of kids were learning at home in 2020, so the census clarified its survey question partway through that period. But even so, Joyce Burges, who founded the National Black Home Educators, says thousands of families have joined that organization since 2020.
JOYCE BURGES: I think you're going to see more and more parents, Black parents, home-schooling their children like never before.
MILES: Home schooling in Black households can be its own unique form of activism. Cheryl Fields-Smith is a professor at the University of Georgia. She studies how Black mothers use home schooling as a form of resistance.
CHERYL FIELDS-SMITH: We are combating the leftovers from slavery. This idea of white supremacy and the inferiority of Black people lingers today. We are overcoming racism through home schooling. I don't think white people can say that.
MILES: Take school discipline - data from the U.S. Department of Education in 2014 found that Black students were suspended at three times the rate of white students. Jennifer Duckworth co-founded the Black Homeschoolers of Birmingham so more home-schooling families of color could find and support each other.
JENNIFER DUCKWORTH: The African American and African culture, we are the culture that has been home-schooling our children since the beginning, and so I feel like it's just in our DNA.
MILES: For a long time, the country put up barriers that made it hard for Black people to get an education. So learning was always a community effort. Duckworth has three kids, and she's been home-schooling them for several years already. They participate in the lot of the Black home-schooling group's activities, like the debate club and field trips. The group has helped Duckworth's 10-year-old son Alexander (ph) make new friends.
ALEXANDER: It just feels great to be around kids like me so you don't always have to be alone, like, the odd person out.
MILES: Last month, the group held its first home-schooling summit. Duckworth says in just three years, the Black Homeschoolers of Birmingham has grown from two families to 70.
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SHAPIRO: Kyra Miles covers education for WBHM in Birmingham, Ala. And we also heard reporting earlier in this episode from NPR's Anya Kamenetz.
You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.
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