D.C. School Rolls Decline, Preliminary Tally Shows

[Graph: The District's public schools continue to lose students while charter schools are growing. Public school enrollment is down 8.7 percent from last year.]
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2008

Despite an intensive registration effort over the summer, D.C. public school enrollment has dropped more than 8 percent since last year, the steepest annual decline since the District first hired an outside auditor to verify the student population in 1999, according to a preliminary count completed this week.

The decrease follows a turbulent spring and summer of change in the city's schools. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, launching the second year of a high-stakes attempt to transform public education, fired more than 50 principals and assistant principals, closed 23 under-enrolled schools and mandated academic reforms at 26 others. Sixty buildings underwent $200 million in renovations and repairs.

The drop also comes as the popularity of the city's public charter schools -- the nation's largest system of charter schools outside New Orleans -- continues to grow. Although charter officials will not undertake a count until early next month, they are projecting a 20 percent gain, to 26,494.

A significant portion of that increase is attributable to the conversion of seven financially struggling Catholic schools that reopened this month as secular charters, adding about 1,200 students to the charter school system.

As of Tuesday, three weeks into the fall term, 45,135 students were enrolled in the District's 120 schools, according to Dena Iverson, Rhee's spokeswoman. That is down from 49,422 during the 2007-08 school year.

School officials moved up the beginning of fall enrollment this year and promoted it heavily on the school system's Web site. They emphasized yesterday that official enrollment numbers will not be available until this year's audit, which will be based on attendance Oct. 6. Late arrivals could bump up the number.

Asked to comment yesterday, Rhee said in an e-mail message that the enrollment numbers were "inaccurate," even though they had been provided by her spokeswoman. She did not elaborate. Rhee also announced yesterday the formation of an advisory commission on enrollment policy to make recommendations for changes in the regulations. Iverson said matters such as school attendance boundaries have not been reviewed for many years and fail to reflect numerous school closures and changing demographics.

The ascendancy of charter schools is not the only factor that could be driving the drop in enrollment, which has spiraled steadily downward from a high of 146,000 students in 1960, to 80,000 in 1980 and to 67,000 in 2000.

Migration to the suburbs, high housing costs triggered by gentrification and a drop in the number of births during the 1990s may all figure in the trend, according to Mary Levy, director of the Public Education Reform Project for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

But Levy added that the numbers also reflect a decision by some parents to "vote with their feet" and seek alternatives to a school system in which upheaval has historically been the normal state of affairs. Many new principals were not named until deep into the summer break, and some school buildings were under renovation until hours before classes began.

"Parents don't like unpredictability," Levy said. "They want to know who's going to be teaching their children and what the building is going to be. Because they have so many choices, they can bail out when they are uncomfortable."

Preliminary numbers show enrollment shortfalls in some of the 24 "receiving" schools, designed to accommodate students from school buildings shuttered in June.

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