D.C. school system enrollment up, city official expected to announce

The Post editorial board's Jo-Ann Armao speaks with Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the D.C. Public School system, about the future of her position, her greatest regret and accomplishment and what she thinks of her portrayal as a "superwoman" in the documentary "Waiting for Superman." (October 4, 2010)
By Bill Turque and Daniel de Vise Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 12:26 AM

The D.C. public school system's enrollment has increased this fall after nearly four decades of losses, city officials planned to announce Tuesday.

School leaders offered few specifics. But any gain over last year's 44,467-student count would represent a significant educational and symbolic breakthrough for the long-struggling system, which just last week endured the embarrassment of hearing from President Obama that it was not a suitable option for his daughters.

School officials confirmed in a brief statement Monday that 73 of the system's 123 schools saw increases. Some schools in every ward show gains, based on an unaudited count of students that awaits an accountant's review. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) have called a morning news conference to discuss the numbers.

Rhee was hired in 2007 partly in hope that her aggressive menu of reform could reverse a half-century of decline in the District's public school population. In 1960, D.C. public schools served 146,000 students, more than triple the number now.

"I think people are putting more and more trust in the school system. My oldest went to a private school, and I'm back in the public system because of the trust that I have," said Leticia Long, PTSA president at Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest Washington.

Enrollment dwindled as families fled to the suburbs and, more recently, to the parallel universe of D.C. charter schools, which are tax-funded but independently run.

The reversal could represent a groundswell of parental support for Rhee and her reforms. Or it could simply reflect the sagging economy, a force that has driven families back to public schools from private campuses. Some D.C. leaders were cautious in their praise.

"It's a good thing that enrollment is going up. I know that the economy is causing a lot of people to take a second look at" the public school system, said Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), the presumptive new D.C. Council chairman. Brown has two children at Eaton Elementary School in Northwest, and his wife is a public-schools employee. "The challenge is going to be starting to make our middle schools better, so we can keep those families in D.C. schools."

Stanching the flow of students out of traditional public schools has been one of Rhee's top priorities. Rhee has declined to say whether she will continue as D.C. chancellor in the aftermath of Fenty's loss in the Democratic mayoral primary last month. She has clashed with the winner, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who is the city's presumptive new mayor.

The school population stabilized last year on the strength of a system-wide effort to attract pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. The system is still losing students in many grades, and across most of the upper grades, but at a slower rate.

From fall 2007 to fall 2008, the District lost 7 percent of children moving from kindergarten to first grade. That attrition rate fell to 1 percent in 2009, and officials expect a net gain this year.

The public school system's decline long has been the charter system's gain. Charter enrollment climbed from 6,980 students in 2000 to 27,953 last fall. Charter schools claim 38 percent of public enrollment in the District. Charter schools have promoted themselves as an alternative to the administrative bloat and labor constraints that often vex large public school districts.

The new enrollment figures are based on an official count taken early in the new school year, at a time when classroom populations are thought to have stabilized.

The numbers will be audited by an independent accounting firm.

A school-system promotional campaign has encouraged parents to "take another look" at the public schools, acknowledging the system's devalued brand even as it highlighted Rhee's reforms in ads on radio stations and the sides of buses.

D.C. public schools once were the largest in the Washington area. But decades of decline have left the D.C. system about one-third the size of the 140,000 Montgomery County system. Fairfax County schools enroll 175,000 students, and the Prince George's County system enrolls about 125,000.

devised@washpost.com turqueb@washpost.com

© 2010 The Washington Post Company