With Beaufort County elementary schools seeing enrollment drops of more than 9% in the past year, the county’s School District will reach out to parents of the 1,000-plus students who left the school system, asking why they left and whether they plan to come back after the COVID-19 pandemic, the school board decided last week.
The drop in enrollment between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years — 5.2% overall — was the district’s first decrease in at least eight years.
South Carolina’s Department of Education typically uses attendance taken on the 45th and 135th days of the school year to calculate a school district’s average daily membership.
That total is then used to determine how much money the district gets from South Carolina’s Education Finance Act, and to project population growth for schools, which can lead to school expansions, mobile classrooms or building new schools.
This year, the district’s 45-day attendance total was 21,229 students, a 1,173-student decrease from last year’s count.
It’s the lowest the count has been in the district since the 2013-14 school year, according to historical data from the DOE.
Most of the students who left were from elementary schools, which reported about a 9.3% decrease in enrollment on average, district planning coordinator Carol Crutchfield said Tuesday.
That percentage was significantly higher at Bluffton’s Red Cedar Elementary School, which saw an 18.3% drop in enrollment. Crutchfield said this was partly due to a rent hike at the Onyx Luxury Apartments, which is a feeder community for the school. Several families left the apartment complex after the price went up.
Bluffton and Pritchardville representative Rachel Wisnefski made the motion to survey parents who withdrew students from the district. The school board unanimously approved it.
Wisnefski said the idea for a survey came from the board’s ad hoc Bluffton growth committee, which was created last year to take a harder look at growth in Bluffton and the possibility of building new schools, with input from the Town of Bluffton and Beaufort County Council.
Prior to the pandemic, district officials predicted that they “should be building a new school every two to three years” in Bluffton to keep up with the town’s growth, and without rezoning or new buildings, they would need to add more than 100 mobile classrooms to Bluffton schools in the next five years.
But Crutchfield told board members in December that schools across South Carolina had seen unexpected decreases in student population and “are discussing delaying decisions on projections knowing this year is an outlier from previous trends.”
The surveys could be a first step to see whether school populations will return after the pandemic.
Superintendent Frank Rodriguez said Tuesday that the school district would finalize survey questions with the ad hoc Bluffton growth committee before sending the surveys to parents via email.