Study Highlights Changes In D.C. School Enrollment

Clearer Picture of Race, Poverty in System

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008; Page B01

More than 200 of the District's 234 public and charter schools are over 90 percent African American or Hispanic, while seven are majority white, according to a new study of racial patterns in school enrollment.

The report, co-authored by researchers at the Brookings Institution, the Urban Institute and the 21st Century School Fund, affirms in stark detail what is well known in broad terms: that whites are virtually absent from the city's school system. While white children make up 13 percent of the District's school-age population, they comprise 5 percent of public and charter school enrollment. Almost all of them attend schools in wards 2 and 3 in Northwest.

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said yesterday that while the findings were not surprising, the team of researchers provided important enrollment data that officials used to formulate plans to close 23 of its 162 public schools. The study was released this week, but school officials have had access to the data for some time, she said.

The study "puts a lot of numbers and empirical evidence around what we're doing," Rhee said. Schools targeted for closure had enrollments consistently below the citywide median and had exceeded the median rate of enrollment decline over the past five years. Other factors, including geographic isolation, walkability and proximity to other schools were also considered, officials said.

Rhee said that the only way to narrow the racial divide depicted in the report was to give the children remaining in the system higher-quality schools to attend. The way to begin, she said, was to invest money gained from the closings back into the classrooms.

"By saving these kids, we'll attract them [white families] back," Rhee said.

Perhaps what is more remarkable about the study, commissioned by State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist, is that it provides D.C. school officials with their first reliable baseline of information about the demographics of enrollment in public and charter schools.

Rhee said that when she assumed her post 10 months ago, she found a system with no less than 28 different systems of data, many of them incomplete and incompatible. The data problems remain significant. Speaking yesterday to a school partnership summit sponsored by the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Rhee said a senior aide told her recently that it would be 18 to 24 months "before I can look you in the eye and tell you the data you're looking at is accurate and has integrity."

Researchers said the disarray made the project especially challenging. "It was a very difficult process," said David F. Garrison, a senior fellow at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. He also said the situation has improved.

Reliable information was especially scarce when it came to the city's 72 charter schools, which are publicly funded but governed and operated by private, nonprofit boards. Researchers said they had to call each charter school to obtain square footage information, which is key to determining the average physical space allocated to each student. Twenty of the 72 schools did not respond.

The study, which was first reported by the Examiner, also found that there were many schools for which the Public Charter Schools Board did not have electronic student data.

The study, the first of three by the research team that will explore aspects of the school system, describes the long, spiraling decline in D.C. public school enrollment and the rapid rise in the popularity of charter schools. In 1954, the year of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, D.C. schools were less than 60 percent black. Over the next 12 years, 30,000 white students left. At the same time, many middle-class black families departed. That has left a system overwhelmingly black, Hispanic and poor.

From 1960 to 1980, the D.C. public school population declined from 146,000 to 80,000. Enrollment in 2006 was 52,645, with an additional 19,733 in charter schools.

The District has the second-highest level of charter school participation of any city in the country, behind only New Orleans, researchers said. Since 1997, the number of students attending DCPS has dropped by almost a third, while public charter enrollment has grown by more than 400 percent.

The study also underscored charter schools' popularity with minority parents. Twenty-eight percent of D.C. African American public school students and 24 percent of its Hispanic students attend charters.

"They are largely about providing education to non-white students," Garrison said.

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