Enrollment in Oklahoma public schools is growing, but it’s not happening in every district. Who are the winners and losers?
The latest data from the state Education Department show public schools’ greatest growth in 2019 occurred in charter schools, while enrollment in the state’s largest districts, Oklahoma City and Tulsa public schools, declined.
The steady overall growth, and trends within it, reflect how student enrollment underpins many issues in education: class sizes, teacher shortages and state funding.
State school funding is doled out per student, so an uptick in enrollment gives schools funds to improve services and programs and hire teachers. A dip in enrollment could mean cuts and school closures — painful decisions made by Oklahoma City school leaders and under consideration by Tulsa.
Here are five trends from the latest public school enrollment reports.
Crossing a Milestone
For the first time, Oklahoma public schools enrolled more than 700,000 students in 2019, continuing a steady growth trend for more than a decade. The number of students enrolled this year was 703,650 — a 0.7% percent increase over 2018, when there were 698,586 students. The total number of students is up 49,000 from a decade ago. These are students coming into the public school system through population growth, family relocation, or a switch from homeschooling or private school.
Oklahoma is one of 21 states and the District of Columbia that is projected to grow its public school enrollment by 5% or more between 2014 and 2026, according to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
The Leaders in Growth
Epic Charter Schools reported staggering student growth, leading all other districts in the number of new students. Epic’s virtual one-on-one school reported 17,106 students in 2019 and its blended learning school reported 10,962. The blended school’s count includes all Epic students who live in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, whether they attend the blended learning center or not.
Combined, Epic reported over 28,000 students, a 32% increase compared to 2018. The school is under investigation for its enrollment practices and has been accused of enrolling “ghost students,” or students who enrolled in Epic but received little to no instruction. The school also spent nearly $2.5 million on promoting and advertising its school this year, according to the Tulsa World.
School districts in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metro areas also are growing. Mustang, Broken Arrow, Edmond, Moore, Piedmont, Putnam City, Deer Creek, Dove Schools of Tulsa and Norman each reported gaining 200 students or more this year.
Gains for Charter Schools
Two new charter schools opened for 2019: Sovereign Community School in Oklahoma City reported 39 students and eSchool Virtual Charter Academy enrolled 44. Those new schools offset the two schools that closed in 2019: Langston Hughes Academy charter school in Tulsa and Swink, a traditional public school that was annexed by Fort Towson.
Nearly all charters experienced student growth. The highest percent increase was at The Academy of Seminole, which grew eight-fold from 29 students in 2018, its first year, to 283 in 2019. Le Monde International School, a Norman school also in its second year, added 70 students.
Dove Schools of Tulsa reported an increase of more than 200 students.
The number of students at charters sponsored by Oklahoma City Public Schools held steady, while the number at charters sponsored by Tulsa Public Schools increased by almost 300 students.
Combined, there are 46,000 students in charter schools—7,700 more than last year (though most of that growth was in Epic.) Charter students still comprise a small percentage – about 6.5% – of all public school students in Oklahoma.
Urban Districts Saw Largest Declines
Oklahoma City and Tulsa remain the state’s two largest districts, but the number of students fell in both districts in 2019. Oklahoma City reported 42,513 students and Tulsa had 38,509 – a nearly 4% decline for Oklahoma City and more than 1% for Tulsa. Those totals include students attending district-sponsored charter schools.
Oklahoma City schools this year closed 15 schools and reconfigured others in a major district restructuring, in part to compensate for declining enrollment. School leaders found they were paying to maintain many half-empty buildings. The district promised to reinvest the savings in smaller class sizes, music, art and physical education teachers at elementary schools and science labs at middle schools.
The district’s enrollment has been declining since racial integration—from a high of 75,000 students in the 1960s.
Leaders at Tulsa Public Schools are considering school closures and other budget cuts due to an expected $20 million shortfall next year. Superintendent Deborah Gist has recommended closing three elementary schools and consolidating a fourth with another school as part of the cost savings plan.
The shortfall is largely due to declining enrollment and state funding cuts to education, district leaders say.
Schools With Four-Day Weeks
Schools using a four-day week calendar are facing an uphill battle to keep that model following a new law requiring an exemption for a school to be in session fewer than 165 days.
The proposed exemption requirements – which include average or above student growth in English and math for elementary schools and student achievement, graduation and postsecondary opportunities for middle and high schools – are too strict, according to a newly formed advocacy group.
The districts using a four-day week are nearly all small and rural. Combined, those districts lost more than 800 students in 2019. They were nearly split, with just over half experiencing an enrollment decline and just under half adding students. However, the two largest districts using a shortened week gained students. Noble Public Schools grew by 25 students, or less than 1%, and Newcastle grew by 105 students, or nearly 5%.