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Young students are leaving Mesa Public Schools. Officials are trying to figure out why

Several elementary schools in the large Valley district have lost more than 20% of their students over the last three years.

MESA, Ariz. — One of Arizona's largest school districts has lost 17% of its kindergartners over the last three years, which has forced administrators to begin assessing how they should efficiently utilize its many campuses. 

New data shared by Mesa Public Schools indicate the district is continuing to lose elementary-level students, long after the mass exodus observed across the state at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Compared to the previous school year, MPS has recently reported losing 183 kindergartners, 37 second-graders, 25 third-graders, 132 sixth-graders, and 226 seventh-graders.

Compared to three years ago, the district has 17% fewer kindergartners and 18% fewer sixth graders -- the two grade levels to experience the most enrollment loss. 

"We are a declining district," said Robert Carlisle, the district's research director, during a school board meeting this week.

Carlisle noted Mesa's high schools have reported enrollment growth over the last three years, which is expected considering there's more K-8 charter schools in the East Valley that families can choose from. 

District officials said enrollment decline has been expected in Mesa for years, yet the decline became more significant in 2020 as the pandemic significantly disrupted in-person learning.

An estimated 38,500 students fled Arizona's public schools during the 2020-2021 school year after many parents became frustrated with how their child's district was adapting to the pandemic's restrictions.

But even as classroom learning has begun to return to a sense of normalcy, Mesa's still noticing a loss of students. 

"Our kindergarten classes are not replacing our sixth-grade classes," Carlisle said this week. "We think this is likely to continue going forward."

Credit: Mesa Public Schools

The new data shows eight MPS elementary schools have lost at least 20% of its students within the last three years. The campuses that have experienced the greatest percentage of student loss are Field, Crimson, Entz, and Wilson elementary schools.

Rhodes Junior High notably has 220 fewer students compared to three years ago. And yet nearly all of the district's high schools have reported enrollment growth during that same time frame. 

MPS Superintendent Andi Fourlis said the enrollment decline will force the district to begin thinking about how to better use its facilities. 

"The data's very clear that we need to match our square-footage to the number of students," the superintendent told the school board, "so we're going to have to think about our space."  

Credit: Mesa Public Schools

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