Arkansas public school data shows uptick in enrollment

Public school enrollment in Arkansas made a sizable climb early in the 2022-23 school year as compared with the past two years but it remains below the total reported in 2019-20 — before the covid-19 pandemic slammed the state and world.

Home-school numbers, which reached a record high in the pandemic-marked 2020-21 school year, have declined this year as compared with numbers recorded in the recent past, according to the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.

As for private schools, the Arkansas Non-public School Accrediting Association reports that there are 19,932 students enrolled in its 95 accredited member schools and associate member schools, which are seeking the organization’s accreditation.

Last school year, 96 member and associate schools had a total enrollment of 18,920, according to the organization’s annual directory. And that compares with 98 schools and 19,045 students in the 2019-20 school year.

The largest of the member schools is Little Rock Christian Academy with 1,553 students. That is followed by Shiloh Christian Academy in Springdale with an enrollment of 1,313.

The wide variety of data reported by the different agencies and the trends reflected by year-to- year numbers reveal, in part, the global pandemic’s impact on education.

The state’s public school Oct. 1 enrollment for this school year is 476,579, which is up from 473,861 a year ago and 473,004 in the 2020-21 school year, the year most affected by the pandemic.

Prior to the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the state’s public school enrollment approached 480,000 — more specifically a total of 479,432.

Home-school enrollment for last school year, 2021-22, was 30,205 students. That has dropped to 26,378 in this 2022-23 school year, according to figures provided by Kimberly Mundell, a spokesperson for the elementary and secondary education division.

“Since students can start home schooling at any time during the year and can also return to public school at any time during the year, the numbers are always in a bit of flux during the current school year,” Mundell said.

While home-school counts have dropped, the total remains above pre-pandemic counts. In the 2019-20 school year, there were 22,461 home-school students, and 22,104 home-school students in the 2018-19 school year, according to news accounts from those years.

In 2021-22, Arkansas education leaders took some consolation in the shift between public and home-school counts.

“You hear in a lot of other states that they lost touch with significant numbers of students,” Arkansas Deputy Commissioner Ivy Pfeffer said in late 2021 about the loss of traditional public school students. “I think for us, in terms of overall numbers, we know where they are because we did see that increase in home-school numbers.”

Even with their diminished total this year, home-school students would constitute the state’s largest school district, if home-school students constituted a school district.

Home schools are not public schools. Home-school students are those whose parents or guardians have opted to assume the full responsibility of educating their children — including the financial cost of curriculum. Parents who home-school must register their intent to home-school with the state.

The annual October enrollment counts in the state’s 259 school systems — including open-enrollment charter schools — are informational and can be used for detecting trends and planning for building new schools, closing or reconfiguring the use of older campuses.

Enrollment is also used to determine annual state funding for districts in the forthcoming year. Per student state funding, however, is based not on the October enrollment but on averaging the student counts from each of the first three quarters of the school year.

The state’s largest school district continues to be the Springdale School District with a kindergarten through 12th grade count of 21,801.

Little Rock School District is the second largest with 20,135 and Bentonville School District is the third largest with 18,674 in kindergarten through 12th grades. Rogers and Fort Smith round out the top five, followed by the Pulaski County Special School District, Fayetteville and Cabot, Conway and Bryant — each of which exceeds 10,000 students.

The covid-19 pandemic pushed Arkansas school systems to use virtual or remote instruction. Remote learners are enrolled in traditional school districts or charter schools, but they are taught at home with school-provided teacher guidance and district-supplied technology and other material.

In the 2020-21 school year, when there were initially no covid-19 vaccinations and then vaccinations were just for adults, more than 88,000 of the state’s students were virtual learners. Another 55,000 students were considered hybrid learners — using a mix of on-campus and at-home learning.

This past school year, the number of virtual students dropped dramatically to about 18,523 or 3.9% of the total public school enrollment.

This school year, state data reports show that there are 11,682 public school students learning remotely, or 2.46 %. There are 1,606, about a third of 1 %, using a combination on onsite and remote learning.