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

Where Did Wisconsin's Kindergarteners Go?

Emily Files
A teaching assistant talks to K4 students through a video chat at Siefert Elementary School in Milwaukee on the first day of school.

This fall, Wisconsin public schools reported unprecedented enrollment declines — particularly in the youngest grades. Four-year-old kindergarten, also known as pre-kindergarten, shrunk by more than 8,000 students statewide, a 16% decline. Regular kindergarten enrollment is down by about 3,000, a 5% decline.

>>Kindergarten Enrollment Plummets In Wisconsin Amid Pandemic

Tiffany Arnold was on the brink of withdrawing her kindergartener and second grader from the West Allis-West Milwaukee District, which has been virtual since the first day of school.

“They are getting exhausted with being on the iPad all the time, like ‘I don’t want to go on this meeting, do I have to go?’” Arnold says.

Arnold and her husband were going to homeschool, but then they had a last-minute change of heart, when their principal offered more flexible schedules for the 5-year-old and 7-year-old.

“Now the girls are in one to two Zoom meetings a day or every other day, with either reading or math,” Arnold says. “And that’s it. All the other things we can do and finish their school work at our pace.”

Arnold is still wary of all the time her little ones are spending on screens. She hasn’t ruled out homeschooling at some point this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many families to rethink their education plans. One result is an exodus of thousands of K4 and K5 students from Wisconsin public schools.

The Department of Public Instruction doesn’t have data definitively telling us where those children went. But there’s anecdotal evidence from individual districts and families.

Because K4 and K5 are not mandatory in Wisconsin, some families are keeping their children out of school, in favor of a more predictable childcare environment like daycare. That’s what Greenfield Superintendent Lisa Elliott heard from some of the 50 K4 families her district lost.

“The uncertainty about how the school year unfolds has created uncertainty for parents as well,” Elliott says. “So if kids are face-to-face and there’s an exposure and a classroom has to close down or a school has to close down, then parents would have to have some type of childcare option.”

Another likely driver of the kindergarten decline is families who don’t want their young children in virtual school.  

Credit Courtesty Eric Bashirian
Eric Bashirian's 4-year-old daughter participates in a virtual music class.

Milwaukee parent Eric Bashirian is agonizing over whether to switch his 4-year-old daughter from MPS, which is virtual, to a private school that’s open in-person.

“I mean, it’s just so common sense that 4- and 5-year-olds don’t belong in front of a computer,” Bashirian said.

Bashirian’s daughter goes to Milwaukee German Immersion. Right now, there is no end in sight for virtual learning in MPS.

>>MPS Board Balks At Proposal To Bring Students Back In January

“We’ve been talking like, 'OK, if this continues into January, into 2021, what do we want to do?'” Bishirian says. “It’s just this tough decision for us. We want to stay committed to German Immersion but, and you tell yourself, 4K isn’t even required in a lot states, she’s 4 years old, but I don’t know. I don’t know how much longer we’ll do it.”

Some kindergarten parents don’t have major complaints about virtual school, considering the public health circumstances.

Marquita Moorer has a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old enrolled in Bruce Elementary, another MPS school. Moorer was fortunate to find a daycare that helps children with virtual learning. She says, during the pandemic, the daycare setting feels safer.

“School has a lot more children versus a daycare,” Moorer says. “Daycare has a capacity limit at this point. If I truly wasn’t able to find a better daycare like this one, it would be kinda hectic and a lot frustration.”

And even school districts that started the year in-person saw kindergarten losses. Pewaukee Superintendent Mike Cady says his district lost 45 4-year-olds. He says about half are homeschooling.

“We hope our kids come back next year, we expect that,” Cady says. “I understand where parents are coming from, these are bizarre and scary times for them as they try to decide what to do sending their youngest off to school. It’s a daunting thing to digest and decide what to do.”

DPI is set to release data soon that will help show whether more young students migrated from public to private schools. But the state does not keep track of how many 4- and 5-year-olds are being homeschooled.

UW-Madison early childhood education expert Beth Graue worries that this enrollment shakeup will intensify educational inequality.

“The parents that choose to have their child not go to school typically are the ones that have the resources to purchase some other kind of education,” Graue says.

She says schools will face a lot of unknowns when this year’s kindergarteners show up in classrooms next school year.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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