Enrollment at DC schools set to decline after years of increases

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Enrollment in DC’s traditional public and charter schools is expected to fall over the next five years, a disappointing turn for a city that had celebrated more than a decade of growth in its public schools.

The current stagnation in enrollment and projected decline in coming years — according to a study released Wednesday by local research group DC Policy Center — has been propelled by falling birth rates and adults moving out of town or removing their children. public schools during the pandemic.

Enrollment has fluctuated in public schools across the country during the pandemic, with families moving out of big cities, opting for homeschooling or private schools, or delaying schooling for their young children altogether. This has caused financial hardship for some districts, as schools are generally funded based on the number of students enrolled. During the pandemic, enrollment in DC did not decline like in other places, but remained stagnant, adding roughly 29 students per year, according to the study.

The district, which now has about 87,000 students in its traditional public and charter sectors, had anticipated long-term enrollment growth, justifying the opening of new schools based on that increase. This enrollment number does not include mature students, thousands of whom are enrolled in specialty charter schools to earn their high school diploma or professional certifications.

Between the 2007-2008 and 2019-2020 academic years, DC public schools grew an average of 1,598 students per year. Growth has stalled during the pandemic and, if trends continue exactly as they are, enrollment could drop to 81,000 students by 2026, according to the study.

“This is such a dramatic shift from previous enrollment trends,” said study author Chelsea Coffin. “It’s really important to watch. DC has planned for growth and we’re used to planning for school size growth.”

The city’s current listing remains far behind its historic peak. Enrollment in DC’s public schools has been steadily declining since the 1960s, when it was around 150,000. By 1995, enrollment had dropped to just under 80,000 students.

The DC Policy Center study relied on government data. DC officials did not dispute the findings, though they said they weren’t prepared to make long-term projections.

In May, the Deputy Mayor’s Office for Education released a report examining the city’s birth rate, which showed that after years of growth, the rate began to decline in 2016. This year there, the city reached 9,854 births; the figure fell to 8,869 births in 2020. Nationally, birth rates had been falling since 2008, the report said.

Within the district, Ward 8 – predominantly black and with a high concentration of poverty – saw the largest drop in births, from more than 1,600 in 2016 to 1,400 in 2020, although it still has the largest number of births. Ward 8 currently has the most students in public schools of any ward, and the declining birth rate suggests it could also see significant declines in enrollment.

The district’s public schools saw their biggest declines in the pre-kindergarten years during the pandemic, with enrollment in that segment dropping 5.9%, according to the city. The city offers free pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds in its elementary schools, but the federal government does not require the federal government to attend school before kindergarten.

City and Coffin officials said many families with 3- and 4-year-olds may have wanted to keep their children home in recent school years until they could get vaccinated, or they may have found other childcare arrangements during the pandemic.

In the near term, the city’s education budget shows enrollment will rise slightly next school year, though Coffin suspects those numbers are too high and dependent on a high number of kindergarteners returning to school. public schools.

“Our pre-K student enrollment was down overall, and our elementary school enrollment was down overall,” Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said at a February news conference on the education budget. “These are areas in which we anticipate, as we go through the pandemic, that our public school population will go up and increase.”

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During the pandemic, the city has seen growth in its middle and high school age groups, according to the study. This is due to the once-growing younger classes entering middle school and high school, and perhaps to a lesser extent related to the increased graduation rate during the pandemic.

There are still many unknowns regarding the city’s long-term schooling. The number of applications for the school lottery — the lottery system that places students in pre-kindergarten classrooms, charter schools and traditional public campuses that are not their assigned neighborhood school — has increased this year, but is still declining noticeable compared to before the pandemic.

The DC Policy Center study illustrated three potential scenarios for DC listing. In one scenario, everything remains as it is now, with declining birth rates and lower-level enrollment continuing to decline. This would bring enrollment to 81,402 students in fall 2026, about 6,000 less than current numbers.

A second scenario keeps birth rates falling but keeps the percentage of babies born in DC who end up enrolling in DC public schools at the same pre-pandemic rates, putting enrollment roughly there. where she was before the pandemic.

The third scenario is similar to the second, except that all children who left during the pandemic return to DC public schools, giving enrollment a one-time jolt and raising it to 89,212 students.

“School planning may need to be readjusted to reconcile with the realities of declining enrolment,” the report said. “The school system should start anticipating these changes and preparing for tough decisions, especially if enrollment does not show signs of rebounding in 2022-23.”

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