The Little Rock School District has significant enrollment challenges, school officials told the Little Rock School Board at a special virtual “retreat” Thursday. Perhaps most worrisome are the declines in projected pre-K and elementary enrollment numbers.

The LRSD typically enrolls around 1,700 pre-K students. This year, 913 are enrolled. Only 350 have signed up to attend next school year. Overall, next year’s pre-K and elementary enrollment is projected to be 9,532, down 1,329 from the current enrollment. That includes the projected loss of more 500 K-5th graders.

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LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore and other administration officials blamed those declines on the coronavirus pandemic, which has led some parents to home school their children. That the state didn’t allow districts to offer virtual pre-K significantly impacted enrollment this year, Poore said. “The 350 [projected enrollment number] really freaks me out,” he said. Not getting kids engaged in learning early could set up a tragic set of events down the road, he said.

Among high schools, the district needs to figure out how to get students and families excited about two newly imagined high schools, the Little Rock West High School of Innovation and Hall STEAM Magnet.

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Hall, particularly, is an urgent concern. It has a projected enrollment of 268 students for the 2021-2022 school year. It’s had more than five times as many enrolled in the past.

This is the first year that the Hall doesn’t have a geographic attendance zone, which is the part of the culmination of a long-gestating plan to turn Hall into a school that specializes in science, technology, arts and math (STEAM). It was also reconstituted by the State Board of Education ahead of the 2020-2021 school year.

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Poore suggested to the board that it consider more closely aligning Hall with Forest Heights STEM Academy, a nearby K-8 that started in 2014-15 after the Forest Heights Middle School was reconstituted. Under Poore’s proposal, Forest Heights students would automatically feed into Hall unless they opted to attend another high school. Among the other options Poore floated were doing nothing, allowing the 11th and 12th grade students to graduate before taking new action, sending all district 9th graders to Hall (“it would be a transportation nightmare,” he conceded) or closing the school.

At the West School of Innovation, 128 ninth graders have registered for next year, which is near the capacity, Poore said. But there are only 58 graders and 49 11th graders enrolled for next school year. Poore advocated for placing virtual-only teachers at that campus. They would provide instruction as part of a new LRSD virtual school, which he said might be attractive to families who still have COVID concerns going into next school year.