PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The pandemic was tough on Kayla Moore’s 7-year-old son Kyrie, who started kindergarten in the fall of 2020.

“He went for a couple of times, and then they shut it down for virtual learning,” Moore said. “The whole time he was at home he was not learning, because he would not go on the computer. He didn’t know how to use the computer. I have to work, so I can’t sit at home and help him use the computer.”

Moore felt Kyrie — who has an individualized education plan — wasn’t ready for first grade, and she wasn’t satisfied with the response to her concerns by Providence school leaders.

“It was the most horrible thing,” Moore said. “They would not answer me, they would not accept my emails.”

So when one of her other children got off the state’s charter school wait list to attend SouthSide Elementary Charter School in Providence, she jumped at the chance to enroll all four of her kids at SouthSide.

Moore’s children are among thousands who left the Providence Public School District during the pandemic, part of a wider trend of dropping enrollment in traditional public schools in Rhode Island — raising concerns about where students are going and a potential funding crisis in the future.

Statewide, Rhode Island’s public schools lost a net of 4,991 students from October 2019 to October 2021, according to data provided to Target 12 by the R.I. Department of Education. (Schools calculate enrollment for each school year in October.)

The enrollment drop is not distributed evenly across all schools. Traditional public school districts alone lost a net of 6,554 students, while public charter schools gained a net of 1,523 students.

Data source: R.I. Department of Education; Digital graphic by Lisa Mandarini

The state’s overall public school population had increased for five years in a row prior to the sharp drop. A total of 138,566 students currently attend a public school including charters, down from 143,557 in late 2019.

In Providence, enrollment fell from nearly 24,000 students before the pandemic to roughly 21,600 this school year.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” Moore said. She said the small size of SouthSide — only 143 students are enrolled — means more one-on-one attention for her children, and better communication with parents.

“I am so happy with the choice I made for my children,” she said.

Demand for charter schools is outstripping supply: according to RIDE, more than 5,700 students have submitted 17,800 applications so far for roughly 2,000 seats available in the annual charter lottery, set to take place on April 1.

Acting Providence Superintendent Javier Montañez acknowledges the state-controlled district — in the middle of a turnaround plan — has lost students, and points to similar trends in other urban districts across the country.

“My focus is to make sure that Providence is providing the families with the highest quality education that they deserve,” Montañez said in an interview with Target 12. “We’re also making progress under the turnaround. But we know that some families may choose other options.”

He noted that many Providence students come from families who were disproportionately affected by the economic conditions of the pandemic, and have had to stay home to care for younger siblings or even get a job, eschewing school.

PPSD is tracking where the students go, in part using 26 newly hired community specialists who call or knock on doors when families don’t notify the school that their child is leaving.

In all, 4,689 students have stopped attending Providence schools since October 2019, according to PPSD’s data, not including those who graduated.

Roughly half of those students went to another Rhode Island public school: 1,264 went to a traditional district in another town or city, and 1,074 to a charter school. Another 866 moved out of state, and 147 left the country, according to the data. A handful went to the R.I. Training School, the state’s juvenile detention center.

But 279 of the Providence students who left have not yet been accounted for as being educated anywhere else; they are instead listed in the district’s system as “no-show,” “non-returnee” or “habitually absent,” the latter indicating a student started coming to school then stopped showing up.

“It’s always a concern to me whether it’s one student, 100 students or 1,000 students,” Montañez said. “It’s always a priority to me to make sure our students are in school.”

He said the district will not stop looking for those students.

“We’re doing everything we can to try and communicate and find where the students are,” Montañez said. “At no point can we drop any of our students without knowing what school or what district they are attending after they leave Providence.”

About 6% of the students who left — 275 — went to a private school, including parochial schools.

Subbu Ventkataraman and Leela Sami are among the parents who made that decision for their daughter Suha, but said it was a tough choice to make.

“We felt strongly that she should be in the public schools with everybody else,” Sami said in an interview.

Suha was a student at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary when the pandemic began, and is now a sixth-grader at the Gordon School, a private school in East Providence.

Sami said the public elementary school initially worked for Suha, but she excelled beyond her peers, and fellow academically advanced students slowly left the school.

“It just became untenable to stay,” Sumi said. The couple had been deeply involved in the public schools, including with parent organizations and Community Advisory Boards.

“I feel guilty, almost,” Sumi said. “I feel that I am privileged to be able to make the choice.”

Faith Snowe, another Providence mom whose son Eden went to Lillian Feinstein Elementary at Sackett, said she made the choice to pull him out of public school because of the reputation of Providence middle schools.

“You hear all these stories,” Snowe said. “The kids aren’t being looked after, they’re bullied at these schools, the kids aren’t being protected, the academics aren’t up to par.”

Snowe said Eden generally had a good experience at Feinstein. But she was not impressed with Providence’s Virtual Learning Academy in the fall of 2021, leaving her unsurprised that other parents chose to leave the district.

Eden is now in middle school at Bishop McVinney School, a Catholic school in Providence.

While data on statewide private school enrollment is not publicly available, some schools reported increases during the pandemic. The Diocese of Providence, which runs 36 private schools, saw a 7% drop in 2020, but then enrollment increased by 5% to more than 9,600 students in 2021.

Home schooling has also sharply increased, another explanation for where the state’s public school students have gone.

The number of home-schooled Rhode Island students was rising slowly prior to the pandemic, going from 1,620 students in 2014 to 1,887 in the 2019-20 school year. The number then shot up to 3,335 home-schooled students in 2020-21. (Home school data for the current school year is not complete.)

Housing prices are another concern when it comes to enrollment levels. Westerly Superintendent Mark Garceau said finding affordable housing has long been a problem in the coastal town, but has been exacerbated by an influx of New York and Connecticut residents buying up homes during the pandemic.

“Fewer families moving into the district is a definite driver,” Garceau said. The out-of-staters “fleeing NYC have driven values up and created a dearth of inventory.”

Westerly has lost a net of 270 students in the past two school years, more than 10% of its student population, giving it the largest percentage decrease among Rhode Island districts with more than 2,000 students. Garceau said some students are leaving for charter schools and home-schooling.

“We have seen a large number of families move to home-schooling since the beginning of the pandemic,” Garceau said. “Many have since come back, but others are, I think, waiting until this is entirely behind us.”

Other districts that saw a large proportion of students leave during the pandemic include South Kingstown (9.5%), Newport (8%) and Pawtucket (7.5%). A handful of districts saw their enrollment either increase or remain flat, including Foster-Glocester, Lincoln, Cumberland, Smithfield and Barrington.

The funding dilemma

It’s not yet clear if public school enrollment will bounce back next year. If not, districts could be in for a budget crisis because of the way schools are funded.

Rhode Island’s school funding formula, enacted more than a decade ago, uses enrollment as one of several factors to determine how much aid a school will receive. In some districts, including Providence, the state funds make up the vast majority of the district’s budget.

“Any decline in student population across the traditional public school is of concern because of the way we do the funding formula,” said Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island union. “If you have a classroom of 20 students and one is gone, you are losing funding under the funding formula but you’re not saving any money. We’re still paying the teacher, we’re still running the buses, we’re still heating and lighting the school.”

Gov. Dan McKee highlighted the problem in his State of the State address last month, pledging to hold districts harmless for their enrollment drops this year. McKee’s budget plan proposes spending $50 million on a “transition fund” to make up what districts would have lost this year based on enrollment trends.

Providence alone would lose $19 million this year in state aid without the transition funds, according to a breakdown provided the Department of Administration. Cranston would lose $4.2 million, East Providence would lose $2.8 million, and Newport would lose $1.8 million.

The funding formula should be continuously reviewed to make improvements, Walsh said.

“This is something that we need revisit on a regular basis, and the pandemic has given us a really good reason to revisit it,” he said.

Asked how Providence would find $19 million worth of savings if the budget cut were realized, Dr. Montañez said it was too soon to say.

“We’ll have a clearer picture … when the state and city budgets are settled,” Montañez said. “Funding is important, but in addition to the funding what’s important to me is that we have all the students.”

Ideas from the candidates for governor

Rhode Island has a gubernatorial election this fall, and the winner will likely need to address the enrollment problem next year. Target 12 asked each candidate how they’d tackle the problem.

McKee, a Democrat who has not formally launched his re-election campaign, said he’d consider “phasing in” any cuts to school funding.

“We do not yet know whether these enrollment changes are temporary or permanent, and our primary goal now is supporting schools to return to in-person learning,” McKee spokesperson Matt Sheaff said. “Looking ahead, if the enrollment changes persist, the governor is open to working with legislative leaders and local officials to avoid major, immediate cuts in school funding, possibly by phasing in the impacts over time as is done in Massachusetts.”

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, also a Democrat, said the pandemic has only exacerbated issues contributing to dropping enrollment, including a lack of affordable housing.

“Our policy decisions need to be about more than just using the new federal funds as a Band-Aid measure or a handout,” Gorbea said. “For example, Rhode Island needs to take this moment to reform and stabilize the funding formula used for education to ensure a better future for our children. Using property taxes as the main source of educational funding has become a real problem in our state. It has not only led to unjust distribution of wealth and resources, it is negatively impacting the quality of our children’s education.”

Democrat Matt Brown suggested a tax hike to better fund the schools.

“Our public schools are devastatingly underfunded,” Brown said. “In 2006, the conservative political machine slashed taxes for the richest 1%, costing our state well over a billion dollars. As governor I’ll raise taxes on the top 1% – people making over $450,000 a year – so they pay their fair share and we can fully fund our public schools.”

Former CVS executive Helena Foulkes criticized McKee’s proposal to level-fund the schools this year.

“In order to reduce the enormous strain on our teachers, ensure that students are getting appropriate support, and accelerate learning to make up for COVID-related learning loss, Rhode Island must make a historic, once-in-a-generation investment in our schools,” Foulkes spokesperson Audrey Lucas said. “The governor’s proposal to simply level fund districts is woefully inadequate. Helena will be releasing her full education plan in a few weeks, which will call for a transformational investment in Rhode Island public education.” 

The fifth declared candidate, Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, did not immediately respond to a request for how he would solve the funding problem.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

Eli Sherman contributed to this report.