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New Mexico seeks 12,000 ‘missing’ students as enrollment drops

A classroom sits empty at Dennis Chavez Elementary School in Albuquerque. The state is trying to locate some 12,000 students who have apparently stopped attending public school. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – New Mexico education child welfare officials are working to locate 12,000 “missing” students who have stopped attending public school and haven’t notified the state about their next move.

A total of 21,000 students have disenrolled since the spring, including those who have notified schools of a transfer to home-schooling, a private school or to a school out of state. New Mexico’s student enrollment has declined for years due to an aging, flat population, but the apparent exodus recorded this fall is much larger than before.

The 12,000 students who are unaccounted for reflect a 4.2% decline in enrollment for the 40-day “money count” that determines public school funding, according to the Public Education Department, which released preliminary data weeks ahead of schedule.

“Typically, attendance numbers are released only after weeks of careful vetting, but because of growing concerns about high absence rates, the department opted to release them now as preliminary, unconfirmed figures,” the department said in a statement last week.

The numbers are usually released in December, but news media and state legislators have been pushing for an earlier release to assess the potential impact of the pandemic on future education funding. With the vast majority of schools in New Mexico stuck in online-only learning, many parents have given up on public school.

State lawmakers are considering legislation to keep funding stable despite drops in enrollment during the pandemic.

The Public Education Department is working with other state agencies like the Children, Youth and Families Department as well as school districts to try to identify the students and re-enroll them if possible.

Parents who fail to enroll their children in some form of school may run afoul of state laws, but state officials are trying to take a soft approach. Child welfare and law enforcement agencies have largely avoided fining parents under truancy laws, focusing instead on welfare checks that result in referrals to public services.

“This is a time for compassion. We know there are many reasons children are not attending school, and we want to work with them and their families to solve problems and get them back in class – not to punish them. But ultimately, we must meet our promise to educate every New Mexico child for college or career,” said Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart.

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