Understanding the at-risk student count in the release of Colorado’s 2022-23 public school enrollment numbers

Written by: Lauren Hecht
Date Posted: February 3, 2023

Data released recently by the Colorado Department of Education showed a small decline in public school enrollment for the second time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a sign of the pandemic’s ongoing impact on schools across the state. As of fall 2022, enrollment stood at 883,264 students in grades PK-12, nearly 30,000 fewer than in fall 2019. 

Colorado schools count the total number of students enrolled as of early October each year; a process known as the October Count. This count also captures the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (FRL). The enrollment numbers collected through this process have implications for school district funding. Colorado uses the number of students who qualify for FRL to allocate additional school district funding for students categorized as at risk of poor academic outcomes.   

Colorado’s reliance on FRL forms for school funding purposes has been a growing problem for years. The pandemic made this especially apparent as at-risk student counts declined dramatically during the first year of the COVID-19 crisis, even as other indicators pointed to widespread economic struggles. However, amid the overall decline in enrollment between fall 2021 and fall 2022, the number of students enrolled with FRL increased to 354,966 students – signaling that there was not a large drop-off in the number of FRL students identified through the at-risk factor. While this is promising, it is important to remember that the FRL method for at-risk students does not properly capture the economic challenges faced by students, families, and households. Throughout the pandemic, the Children’s Campaign has been working to develop legislation to move Colorado away from FRL as the sole measure for identifying students whose families are struggling economically.  

The experience of child poverty presents barriers to learning. To provide students from families with low incomes the resources and opportunities they need to succeed, an accurate measure of economic hardship must be implemented. After more than four years of collaboration on this subject within the Legislative Interim Committee on School Finance, the committee introduced HB22-1202 last year. 

The successful passage of HB-1202 established a work group to develop recommendations for transitioning to a new method for measuring economic disadvantage among students – and that group’s final report was released this week. The Children’s Campaign participated as an appointed member. The report recommends implementing a new weighted funding factor that will move Colorado away from its reliance on FRL and towards eligibility for public benefit programs like SNAP, TANF and Medicaid. It would also include neighborhood or community level socioeconomic factors linked to each student’s census block group. This approach will be unique among states, as many others are also wrestling with better ways to account for poverty.  

A new at-risk factor will take time to set up, but the Children’s Campaign is part of the process and will be paying close attention to how this more comprehensive measure of student economic disadvantage is reflected in future at-risk counts.  

As we consider public school enrollment trends in Colorado now and in the future, developing the most accurate picture of the students that need additional support and investment is vital to keeping high enrollment, high achievement, and the well-being of our students at the top of our priorities. To learn more about the At-risk Working Group or HB22-1202, contact our V.P. of Youth Success Initiatives, Leslie Colwell, at leslie@coloradokids.org. 

Lauren Hecht

About Lauren Hecht

Lauren Hecht is the Digital Communications and Policy Associate for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. She is a co-editor of KidsFlash and the coordinator of our social media platforms and website. She provides strategic policy, advocacy, and development support to the organization through digital and print communications, multimedia campaigns, community outreach, and engagement efforts. Lauren graduated from Colorado College with a degree in Political Science and minors in Latin American Studies and Art Studio.