3 Strategies Could Increase D.C. Enrollment, Study Says

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008

The District could add as many as 20,000 students to its public and public charter schools by 2015 with the right mix of academic reform, affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization, a study by a consortium of think tanks concludes.

The next few years present an opportunity for D.C. public schools to reverse years of falling enrollment, one researcher says, but only if the system "captures the confidence and imagination" of families with young children that are weighing whether to remain in the city or move to the suburbs.

The study, a collaboration of the 21st Century School Fund, the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute and released last week, assumes that the city's population -- currently about 585,000 -- grows as projected, to about 626,000 by 2015. It also assumes that the share of children under 18 rises during that same period, from about 19.6 percent to 21.6 percent.

By retaining a slightly higher proportion of that expanded pool of school-age children, the District's K-12 population could rise from 72,000 (45,000 public and 27,000 public charter) to an estimated 93,000.

The study's authors don't attempt to estimate how the increase would be distributed between public and public charter schools. While D.C. public schools have been steadily losing students -- from a high of 147,000 in 1967 to an estimated 45,000 this year -- charter schools have been gaining at a robust pace for the past decade.

Despite the loss of students, and the closure of 23 schools in the past year, D.C. public schools still have an inherent advantage because of their presence in virtually every neighborhood of the city, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund.

"We think they should have a market advantage over the charter schools," Filardo said.

The system will lure more students, researchers say, only by strengthening ties between schools and neighborhoods where the number of families with children at or approaching school age is rising, including Union Station-Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan.

Improving the quality of teaching and learning in those schools is an obvious imperative. But the study also calls for policies that might decrease the frequency with which students enter and leave D.C. public schools. Enrollment policies give families wide latitude to send their children outside the attendance area of their neighborhood schools. Although many of these departures occur naturally as children move from elementary to middle to high school, data from two school years starting in 2005 show 8,100 "early exits" -- about half to other D.C. public schools and nearly a quarter to public charter schools. In 2007, the average District elementary school enrolled just 44 percent of the students within its attendance boundary.

The study's authors don't propose weakening the idea of school choice. But Filardo said that choice, in and of itself, has not improved the system. Once parents have made the appropriate choice, they said, schools need to do a better job encouraging them to stay by offering stronger academic programs and working through problems.

"What may be more powerful are stable relationships between families and schools," Filardo said. The study also recommends a closer alignment of school reform with housing and neighborhood revitalization policies. That means using zoning laws to build and preserve more affordable housing in gentrifying areas. It also calls for more initiatives to expand housing options in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River to create a broader mix of income levels, said Margery Austin Turner, director of the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.

Turner said such neighborhoods as Congress Heights have "tremendous potential" if they attract the right mix of school and housing investments. A broader income mix would also help lift schools in Southeast Washington, with their high concentrations of children from low-income families. "A school attended primarily by very poor kids whose parents are struggling will have a hard time even when principals and teachers make heroic efforts," said Turner, citing research showing that schools with smaller concentrations of children from high-risk backgrounds perform at a higher level.

District officials recently presented a facilities master plan for public school buildings that would spend $250 million a year over the next five years to upgrade every classroom. Mafara Hobson, spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), said the city is aware of the critical link between affordable housing and schools. She said that during the past 21 months, the city has produced and preserved about 4,000 units of affordable housing and will expand that number.

"The facilities master plan is built around that commitment," Hobson said.

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