Rise in D.C. school enrollment driven by growth of charter schools

October 25, 2012

The number of students enrolled in public and public charter schools in the District rose 5 percent this fall, to nearly 81,000 students, the highest level in more than a decade, according to a raw enrollment count that city officials plan to release Thursday.

The raw numbers are self-reported by schools and will now be audited by an independent accounting firm. They are likely to change somewhat, but they offer a strong indication of enrollment trends in the city: After losing students for decades, the District is gaining them again, and mostly in charter schools.

“Public schools as a whole are coming back,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. Pearson said it is not clear whether the increase is coming from private-school transfers or from families choosing to stay in the city rather than fleeing to the suburbs.

This is the fourth consecutive year of enrollment growth citywide.

By far, most of the increase occurred in charter schools. Their enrollment jumped by 11 percent, to just over 35,000 students.

D.C. charters, which are funded with taxpayer dollars but operated independently of the traditional school system, have expanded quickly in the past decade and now appear to comprise 43 percent of the total public school enrollment — two percentage points higher than last school year.

Among big-city school systems nationwide, only New Orleans has a higher proportion of students in charters.

Enrollment in traditional D.C. public schools, meanwhile, appears to have stagnated. The raw count was 45,835, 1 percent more than last year’s final enrollment figure. But numbers tend to fall when they’re audited, and the school system may, in fact, record a slight drop in enrollment once the final figures are reported.

The school system’s enrollment peaked at about 146,000 in 1967 and then declined steeply for decades. It has held more or less steady over the last four years, with schools in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods packed to the gills but many in poorer areas holding far fewer students than they were built for.

In early November, the school system is expected to announce a proposal to close some under-enrolled schools.

“We are actively working to improve our schools for all of our students,” spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said in a statement. “We are hopeful with the strategic work we are doing, more families will continue to choose DCPS.”

As in years past, the system showed some of its biggest enrollment gains in preschool and kindergarten. There was also an increase at schools dedicated to special education. The city has made a sometimes controversial effort to bring students with disabilities back into the public system, rather than paying tuition for them to attend private schools.

Most of the charter sector’s gains were attributable to the opening of four schools, according to an analysis by the charter board. High-performing charter schools also saw enrollment increases, while struggling schools — as defined by the charter board’s rating system — saw declines.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education oversees the annual enrollment count, and will publish the audited figures sometime in the next several months.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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