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Emerging From Pandemic, Schools Report Record Enrollment
This is the image for the news article titled Emerging From Pandemic, Schools Report Record EnrollmentMary Kate Murphy, The Pilot

Moore County Schools has reached a historically high student enrollment as of its first official head count this year.

The district saw a significant slump in numbers at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But over the last two years enrollment has rebounded faster than expected, driven in part by the district’s new virtual academy and part-time program for homeschooled children.

North Carolina determines funding for individual school districts based on enrollment as of the 20th day of each school year. That marker also serves as a consistent baseline for year-to-year comparisons.

This year schools around the county reported a total of 12,963 students on Sept. 27. That’s up by 138 from the fall of 2021. It’s also the first time that the district’s enrollment has eclipsed the 12,900 mark.

Student counts have ebbed and flowed over the years, previously peaking in 2013 and 2014 with nearly 12,900. Enrollment took a significant hit with the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Starting off the 2020-2021 school year the district implemented part-time virtual learning and did not return to full-time classroom schedules K-12 until the spring.

Moore County Schools enrolled around 12,300 students that year, but in the fall of 2021 the district gained back most of what it had lost.

Last year’s enrollment included 600 or so students participating in the Connect Virtual Academy. But the district had yet to designate the virtual program as an independent school, so its students were included in the count for the physical schools they would otherwise be attending.

Administrators reported to the school board this past week that the virtual academy enrolls just over 300 students this year. Of those, 26 were not Moore County Schools students last year.

Now that the school board has approved the establishment of the Connect Virtual Academy as a standalone school, its new principal Jeremy Swofford is working to recruit local students who previously attended one of the two statewide virtual charter schools.

“I had hoped we would be reaching out to bring them back into Connect if at all possible,” said Vice-Chair Libby Carter. “The two online charter schools I know are D-rated, or maybe worse. So I would hope those students might be coming back.”

Administrators attribute the district’s overall growth — and some of the declines at other public school campuses — primarily to the virtual academy and “Blend Ed” program for homeschooled students.

“The Connect Virtual Academy obviously has impacted some of the schools in terms of their numbers,” said Mike Metcalf, the district’s chief officer for academics and student support services.

West End Elementary counted 68 fewer students than last year, and Southern Middle’s reported enrollment fell by 52. Sandhills Farm Life Elementary and Union Pines High had the most significant growth in their student body, with 35 and 48 additional students respectively.

“We use three-year averages to do projections, and every school has fluctuations,” said Kate Faw, Moore County Schools’ director for planning, accountability and research. “Some are high, some are low years, and it’s a low year at a couple of our kindergartens.”

Metcalf said that some of the enrollment changes also reflect the recent countywide school redistricting. The district phased in that plan in 2020 and 2021, but many students approaching the end of the elementary, middle, or high school grades received waivers to remain where they were.

The Blend Ed program, which offers a la carte classes and eligibility to participate in athletics and other extracurricular programs, drew in another 31 students who had not previously attended the public schools.

“They are Moore County residents who were in alternate school programs last year. Many of those are homeschooled who are going with the Blend Ed,” said Metcalf. “At the Connect (academy) some were homeschooled last year but some were coming from private and charter schools.”

Board member David Hensley said he was more interested in comparisons of the district’s share of the education market relative to local private, charter and homeschool options. The district currently enrolls about 72 percent of the school-aged children in Moore County.

“In the previous seven years, Moore County Schools lost 12 percent market share, I assume to charter schools and private schools and that is what we really need to be looking at,” said Hensley. “Obviously (enrollment) pays the bills, gets us money, but market share really shows how we’re standing.”

Those figures are tracked by the state’s public instruction department as well as the Department of Administration. Metcalf said that the decline in enrollment relative to the total school-aged population corresponded to Moore Montessori Community School opening in Southern Pines in 2018.

Board member Robert Levy pointed out that the Montessori school received a “D” rating on its recent state report card. The two statewide virtual charters have also been consistently “D” rated.

“I want to remind everyone that we’re going to do things that charter schools can’t do or won’t do,” Levy said. “We’re going to make everyone want to come to Moore County Schools.”

Click here to view the article published by The Pilot.
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