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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

As Wisconsin students moved around during pandemic, thousands went missing from enrollment data

Milwaukee Excellence charter school students in 2021.
Emily Files
Milwaukee Excellence charter school students in 2021.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a massive reshuffling in where K-12 students went to school.

Wisconsin public schools saw their biggest enrollment drop in 35 years, while private and home school numbers took off.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum has a new report on where students went over the last three years. The research shows that between 4,500 and 11,600 students have gone “missing” from school enrollment data.

Senior researcher Sara Shaw says public school enrollment declined by about 32,000 between fall 2019 and fall 2022. Private and homeschool enrollment can account for about 11,000 of those students, and the declining birth rate can account for between 9,600 and 16,800 students.

"That's how we get the range of between about 4,500 and 11,600 students that we couldn't account for," Shaw says.

What happened to the missing students?

There are a few possible explanations for the "missing" students.

First, there was a major decline in pre-kindergarten enrollment during the pandemic, with parents choosing to delay sending their young children to school.

Shaw says those numbers haven't fully rebounded — meaning the trend of families waiting to send children to school until kindergarten or first grade may have continued. Or, those young students could be in private or home schools, where enrollment isn't as rigorously tracked.

The policy forum also noted a large drop in migrant student enrollment. That is, the children of migrant workers who come to Wisconsin for usually seasonal work.

"This is a small group of students – fewer than 900 in each year since fall 2009 – yet they saw a marked drop of 50.2% in enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2022, reaching their lowest levels since at least fall 2005," the report says.

Finally, there are likely some students who are attending school less regularly, or who dropped out altogether during the pandemic.

"We've seen rates of chronic absenteeism increase," says researcher Ari Brown. "There's certainly a potential for students that are disconnected, who might be attending school every now and then, but maybe not at the rates they used to."

Those students, if they weren't in school on the day when enrollment is counted, would be missing from the data.

Impact on students and schools

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has used federal COVID relief money to help schools reconnect with disengaged students, through a program called the Graduation Alliance.

Shaw says schools should continue the work to better engage with students and families, both for students' sake and for their own financial health, since school enrollment is directly connected to state funding.

"You might have enrollment losses that are spread across grades, where now you're having to reshuffle teachers, or do more with less," Shaw says. "So for school districts, reconnecting with these students...is as much a financial prospect for them as it is out of concern for students' wellbeing."


Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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