John Barry Elementary in West Philadelphia has three kindergarten classrooms prepped for the start of school on Tuesday. But as of this week, only 15 kindergarten students were registered to attend.
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Principal KaTiedra Argro is confident there will be a late rush — there always is during the first weeks of school. John Barry probably won’t have the 30-student classes it did before the pandemic, but Argro hopes kindergarten classes will hit 20 students.
“Parents will [run] the 50-yard dash once they realize that we’re open,” she said.
As summer break wanes, district leaders are using billboards, open houses, a back-to-school bus tour, and social media ads to bring students back after a tumultuous year. The effort is especially urgent for Philadelphia’s youngest students, who opted out by the thousands last year. Experts worry that if those children don’t return, they could miss out on learning during a critical time in their development, exacerbating existing inequities.
Kindergarten enrollment in Pennsylvania’s largest district dropped nearly 30% last school year compared with the 2019-20 school year. That’s three times the national average, according to findings from a recent Stanford University and New York Times analysis. Philadelphia also lost first graders last year, but the decline was less dramatic, about 8%.
This fall, district officials expect an enrollment rebound, but say they won’t have a clear picture of the tally until late September. So far, kindergarten registrations are up 27% compared with late August last year, and officials said by email Thursday they expect that number to rise further.
The Philadelphia district’s K-12 enrollment has been declining since 2018, with kindergarten enrollment shrinking for even longer, according to state numbers that exclude charter school enrollment. State projections, based on birth rates and other factors, indicate there will be about 9,000 kindergarten students this year in district-run schools, up from 7,000 last year, but down from nearly 10,000 before the pandemic.
The actual size of the district’s kindergarten classes will come into focus soon, with educators expecting a crush of families enrolling next week as parents begin to see children walking by in school uniforms or hear from friends that school is back in session.
Connie Carnivale, who heads H.A. Brown Elementary School in the Kensington neighborhood, said she had only 20 kindergartners enrolled — about 50% of capacity — with six days to go before the start of school. While she expects more to show up, she’s pleased that district leaders have pledged not to switch teachers out of schools with low enrollment — a process called “leveling” that usually takes place in late fall.
Carnivale said some families need an extra dose of reassurance about COVID precautions this year.
“It’s going to take a lot of conversation and trust-building for them to know that we are taking steps to keep their babies safe,” she said.
Denise Jordan, who teaches kindergarten at John Barry Elementary, realized the depth of some parents’ anxiety this week when she called the mother of an incoming student to set up a routine kindergarten assessment appointment.
“It was Q&A the entire time,” she said, recounting a flood of questions on class size, mask rules, bathroom locations, and cleaning procedures.
“That was my first call and I was like, ‘OK, I need to get a Q&A sheet together’… [so] when I meet them, then they can be reassured that we’re really ready.”
School leaders also say some families enroll late because they erroneously believe school starts after Labor Day or have recently moved and don’t know the location of their neighborhood school.
As in any year, Philadelphia educators expect incoming kindergartners to have a vast range of skills. Kindergarten is optional in Pennsylvania, and this year’s crop of students will likely include 5-year-olds with no formal educational experiences along with 6-year-olds who stayed in preschool an extra year because of the pandemic.
For the first time, schools offered summer programs for incoming preschool and kindergarten students to help them transition to school this fall, district spokesperson Marissa Orbanek said by email.
Carnivale said a kindergarten assessment measuring everything from academic to social skills will be administered right away.
“That helps all of our teachers to get a baseline of where their class…falls, so that they can really differentiate based on the students that they have in front of them,” she said.
During the first week only, kindergartners will attend for only half a day in the morning, with afternoon hours used for assessments.
Jordan, who’s been at John Barry for 13 years, expects to welcome plenty of students next week who didn’t attend preschool or a child care program last year.
“It’s going to be a bigger transition for them, but not one that’s impossible,” she said. On the first day, “I’m sure I’m going to have a lot of little people that are crying. Some will be excited.”
By lunchtime, she said, things have usually calmed down and a sense of community has begun to take root.
“I don’t even call it ‘my class,’ ” Jordan said. Instead, she and her students say, “We’re 105,” a reference to her room number.
Orbanek said district leaders know that all students “to varying degrees, will be dealing with trauma” when they return this year. In response, she said, staff will focus from the first day on building positive relationships and welcoming school environments.
Argro said one upside to students’ online experiences last year, even for small children, is greater awareness that screen time can be used for learning, not just entertainment.
“I think even having a 5-year-old, I think her tablet usage is more meaningful now because it’s like, ‘I want to play the educational game,’” instead of just playing Roblox or watching YouTube, she said.
For the next few days, the primary goal is to get children in the door of city schools. John Barry Elementary will host a backpack giveaway Friday and on Monday, Argro said she’ll take an all-hands-on-deck approach to registering new students — complete with what she calls a triage table.
“If they don’t come, I’ll cry,” she said.