Enrollment in Hawaii public schools declined for the third year in a row, with roughly 3,000 fewer students attending Hawaii’s 295 public schools this year than the previous year — a trend that public school officials expect will continue for years to come.

Since the start of the pandemic, enrollment in public schools has declined by 5.9%. By 2027, that number is expected to plummet another 13.8% to 148,096 students.

Enrollment is decreasing nationally because of lower birth rates. There was a noticeable drop in families having children during the great recession in the late 2000s that is now impacting elementary school enrollment, said Tammi Oyadomari-Chun, the Department of Education’s new deputy superintendent of strategy.

But outmigration is also driving the decline in Hawaii. About half of students leaving Hawaii’s public schools are moving to the mainland, Chun said.

Public school enrollment is expected to decline nearly 14% in the next five years. Screenshot

The bulk of school funding in Hawaii is allocated on a per-pupil basis, and drops in enrollment can have a significant financial impact on schools. When schools fall below a certain threshold of students, maintaining programs can become a real challenge.

The enrollment data was presented to the Board of Education Thursday morning during a special meeting. The BOE is examining a slew of local and national education data this fall as it creates a new strategic plan to guide the direction of Hawaii’s schools. 

It is also trying to engage the public through a stakeholder survey. The board has received more than 1,500 responses so far, but only 5% of the responses come from students and roughly 4% come from business leaders, an indicator that the board needs to reconsider how it is reaching out to people, said Robert Hull, a senior advisor with the National Association of State Boards of Education. 

Hull walked the board through a number of data points, including a few spots of concern as the state works to recover from the impacts of the pandemic. 

In 2018, Hawaii was not far off from the national average when it came to the number of students chronically absent from school. In the last full year before the pandemic, 18.5% of Hawaii students missed at least 15 days of class, compared to 15.3% nationally. 

But last year, more than a third of Hawaii students were chronically absent from school. That number was 41% for elementary school students. In the Nanakuli-Waianae Complex Area, 61% of students were chronically absent last year. 

Chronic absenteeism is an important indicator of student success and education officials need to dig more into what is causing students to miss school, Brennan Parton, vice president of policy and advocacy at the Data Quality Campaign, told the board. 

“Is that a transportation issue? Is it a school climate bullying issue? Is that a health issue?” Parton said. 

The need to dig deeper into the data was a key message that Parton had for the board. 

While high school graduation rates have reached historic heights in recent years, with 86% of Hawaii students earning a diploma in 2020 and 2021, it’s important to examine what’s happening after high school, Parton said. 

“Is a high school diploma going further for some students than others? Are some students going to college more often than others? Are some students having access to other kinds of pathways?” Parton asked. “We can’t — especially as statewide level leaders — really stop at examining the end of high school as the understanding of success anymore.” 

The board is expected to hear another data presentation on student achievement in October.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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