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This was the second year that Niche surveyed parents to learn about their school search experiences. The survey was open from August 27 to September 19, 2021, and was posted to Niche, sent to registered parents, and shared in the Niche Parents Facebook group. Results were segmented into preschool searchers, K-8 searchers, high school searchers, and college searchers. For K-8 searches, we received 1,358 responses from parents and guardians with a child who started at a school serving kindergarten through eighth grade in the fall of 2021.
A Few Key Results:
- School quality continues to drive families’ decisions about where to live. Local schools were a decision-making factor for 84% of families.
- As schools reopened for in-person instruction, safety concerns caused many families to press pause on that option: 20% chose virtual learning due to safety concerns and 9% chose to homeschool due to safety concerns.
- An increasing number of parents (46% in 2021 compared to 30% in 2020) started looking at schools less than six months before their children would enroll. This behavior was most common among families in rural environments (51%) and small towns (50%), and least common among families living in suburban (47%) and urban (35%) areas.
- Public schools (54%) and private/independent schools with a religious affiliation (13%) were the most popular choices for families with children in this age group.
- Even though many families ultimately chose to enroll in public schools, only 5% considered them exclusively, compared to 12% in 2020. For families who considered multiple options, public school consideration dropped from 86% in 2020 to 70% in 2021.
Fall 2021 K-8 Search Considerations
Due to nuanced differences in priorities among parents of elementary school-aged children (kindergarten through sixth grade) and older elementary/middle school-aged children (seventh and eighth grades), for 2021, parents of students in those age groups were provided with slightly different options when asked about their considerations for choosing schools. Parents in both age groups valued small class sizes and access to highly qualified teachers.
Class sizes (71%), teacher qualifications (66%), and school rankings (57%) were the most important factors for families with students in grades K-6.
Class sizes (63%), teacher qualifications (61%), and an emphasis on social-emotional development (48%) were the most important factors for parents of students in grades 7 and 8.
After a year of remote and/or hybrid learning for most families, priorities have shifted from academic rigor and physical safety to opportunities for individualized instruction and social-emotional learning (SEL). Similar to last year, neither athletics nor fine arts ranked highly among the list of priorities for parents of children in grades K-8 in comparison to a wider range of both academic and non-academic factors. However, more than a third of families who searched for schools with specific areas of emphasis had an interest in schools focused on fine and performing arts. One factor for schools to watch is diversity: diversity of a school’s student and staff population was important to 40% of seventh and eighth-grade parents and 45% of K-6 parents.
The school types considered by parents reflect changing dynamics in the broader education industry in which charter schools and private schools are increasing in popularity among families who are looking for alternatives to their local public schools. Last year, 12% of parents limited consideration to their local public schools, but in 2021 that number fell to 5%. Public (70%) and charter schools (43%) were the most common options considered, but public school consideration slipped from 86% and charter school interest increased from 26% compared to 2020. Interest in religious (34%) and non-religious private schools (35%) also increased for this age group. Thirteen percent of families considered homeschooling, which is in line with the 11% of households with school-aged children that reported homeschooling in the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. With respect to school specialization, parents were most interested in STEM (62%) and fine and performing arts (32%) as noted above.
Nearly half of parents waited six months or less before their children would enroll to search for schools while 21% began their searches a year or more before their children would enroll.
As also seen in the results for the preschool searcher survey, the broader national trend of families seeking alternatives to public education is also reflected in this survey. The decrease in the number of families who exclusively considered their local public schools was particularly noticeable in the K-8 segment, which is worth noting for public schools that serve these age groups. While public schools and districts have historically directed resources toward more traditional internal and external communications with employees, current families, and the media, marketing to families to recruit new students has not been a priority. Given the changing PK-12 education landscape and shifting parent behaviors related to school search, now is a good time for public schools to have an intentional focus on student recruitment and strategize accordingly.
Schools across segments should also take note of changing parent priorities. After watching their children learn from home and, in many cases, struggle with distance learning, families’ school considerations have changed from academic rigor and physical safety to ensuring that their children have opportunities to receive individualized instruction and benefit from social-emotional learning (SEL) programming, especially for middle school-aged children. In addition, as schools continue to wrestle with how to address issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in their communities, it’s worth noting that this is an area of importance for many K-8 families.
K-8 Enrollment Choices
Public schools remained the top choice for families, but there was a change in other options that parents chose. While interest in charter schools was high in the consideration phase, more families ultimately chose religious private schools. An equal amount of parents (9%) chose charter schools and non-religious private schools. Unlike last year, parents with an interest in STEM programs during the consideration phase maintained that commitment; 41% of parents chose a school with a STEM program compared to only 18% in 2020.
Families’ increased interest in STEM can give schools with that emphasis a reason to celebrate. And schools that don’t have a specific STEM focus but provide strong programming in this area can lean into marketing messages that emphasize it as an area of strength and consider family recruitment events that further highlight their offerings in this area.
Ongoing Pandemic Impact
In 2020, 28% of respondents said that the pandemic had not impacted their family’s decisions regarding their children’s education—in 2021, that percentage rose to 34%. This is interesting given the shifting dynamics in how families are choosing schools that are described above and other responses regarding the impact of COVID-19. In 2020, 18% of respondents changed schools due to the pandemic while that number rose to 20% in 2021; 15% due to their previous school’s response, and 5% due to cost. Twenty-six percent of respondents chose virtual learning; 6% because of academic concerns and 20% because of safety concerns.
We added questions this year about homeschooling and social-emotional wellbeing to the section about the impact of COVID-19, and 15% of respondents chose to homeschool due to the pandemic; 6% due to academic concerns, and 9% due to safety concerns. Eighteen percent reported mental health/social-emotional challenges with their children due to COVID-19.
Not surprisingly, the percentage of students learning fully in-person increased nearly 60% from 24% in 2020 to 83% in 2021. Hybrid learning decreased to 6% from 24% in 2020, and only 11% of students represented in the survey are learning fully remotely. Nearly 90% of families said that their child’s current learning environment was effective. While only remote education was rated as ineffective in 2020, 7% of families with children who are learning fully in-person and 2% of families with children who are learning in a hybrid format rated their child’s current learning environment to be ineffective.
While many students returned to in-person instruction in the fall of 2021, normalcy is still aspirational. As the Delta variant of COVID-19 took hold just as schools were reopening for a new school year, many K-8 families chose to keep their children at home out of concern for their safety. And while only remote learning was rated as ineffective in 2020, the fact that 7% of families with children who are learning fully in-person and 2% of families with children who are learning in a hybrid format rated their child’s current learning environment to be ineffective shows there is room for improvement as students return to on-site classrooms and schools navigate ways to bridge online and in-person instruction.
Schools that are doing this work well would be wise to tout it to both current and prospective families. Have your current families shared positive feedback through surveys or testimonials about how their children are experiencing school this year? Or maybe you’ve heard from students who are happy to be back in their classrooms or teachers who have found unique ways to keep in-person and remote students connected and engaged. Proof points like these can go a long way with parents who are yearning for a return to normalcy for their children.