Prince George's County public schools have about 2,200 fewer students this fall, the second straight year of shrinking enrollment, surprising the leadership of Maryland's second-largest system.
The decline in Prince George's, to an estimated 133,872 students from 136,095 in 2004, and a recent peak of 137,285 in 2003, flies in the face of demographic projections and raises questions about whether some parents have lost confidence in a system beset by controversy and an up-and-down academic reputation. Weeks ago, county school officials had estimated that more than 139,000 students would be enrolled this year.
Elsewhere in the Washington region, most school systems are growing, some at a slower rate than previously, according to a Washington Post survey.
Among the growth leaders, Loudoun County public schools gained more than 3,000 students, to 47,361. That rise, fueled by residential development, was nearly 8 percent. On the slow-growth side, Montgomery County's public schools gained 382 students, to 139,775, an increase of less than half of 1 percent.
One exception is Fairfax County public schools, which had an enrollment of 163,534 on Sept. 30, down more than 1,200 students from the year before. While Fairfax school growth had slowed in recent years in tandem with development trends, this fall's figures appear to mark a milestone. Data on a Virginia Department of Education Web site show that Fairfax, until this year, had gained students every fall since at least 1995. "There is no question our student population growth has been leveling off in the past few years," Fairfax schools spokesman Paul Regnier wrote in an e-mail. Enrollment has dropped slightly in the Arlington and Alexandria school systems as well.
School officials in the Washington suburbs caution that the Sept. 30 enrollment data are preliminary. They also are only a snapshot. Thousands of students in the metropolitan area come and go throughout the school year. Nonetheless, the fall enrollment data drive state spending decisions and help local officials plan for school construction and staffing.
"I'm concerned that we are losing students, and I need to see the causes," said Prince George's Board of Education Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro).
Prince George's school officials said they have significantly fewer first-graders and 10th-graders than they had projected. It's unclear why.
Last spring, Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby resigned amid an ethics controversy and an FBI investigation into his stewardship of certain federal funds, including a $1 million school system purchase of educational software and other equipment made while Hornsby was living with a saleswoman for the vendor. Hornsby denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime. But he became a lightning rod for critics of the county schools during his two-year tenure.
The previous schools chief, Iris T. Metts, also had a controversy-plagued tenure. The elected school board under Metts became so fractious that the state abolished it in 2002 and replaced it with a board appointed by the governor and county executive.
Apart from leadership turmoil, the school system faces other challenges rooted in the demographics of an urban-suburban county known for rising wealth and stubborn poverty. Student transience is high. Parental involvement is spotty in many schools, and the county PTA is feuding internally. Test scores remain among the lowest in the state. But overall scores in reading and mathematics tests have risen over two years, and the majority-black school system has made progress in closing achievement gaps. School leaders say their system is on the rise.
"The image of the school system is pretty up now," school board Vice Chairman Howard W. Stone Jr. (Mitchellville) said. "We've made a number of improvements, and we're headed in the right direction." Stone said he doubted that parents would "flee the school system because of . . . Hornsby." But he said that high crime inside the Beltway might play a role in population shifts affecting the school system, and he suggested that some of the county's 199 public schools might need to be closed.
As students leave the Prince George's public schools, it is unclear where they are headed. Public school enrollment is up a bit in neighboring Charles and Howard counties but down slightly in Anne Arundel County. D.C. public schools -- except for charter schools -- have been contracting. (A spokeswoman for the D.C. system said initial fall 2005 data confirmed that trend, though details were unavailable.) Private schools in recent years have not grown significantly in Prince George's, according to state data, although there are anecdotal reports of some gains this fall in those schools. Interest in private schools appears high.
"I do think [Prince George's public schools] have been hurt overall by some of the news. That's too bad. There are some really good public schools," said Daniel J. McMahon, principal of DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville. His school is full, with about 1,000 students. Its enrollment has been steady.
Laura Carriere, a Bowie mother with two children in a Prince George's public elementary school, leads a group called PGTAG, which backs programs for gifted students at public schools. She said she will consider private school if her children are not admitted to her preferred public high school, Eleanor Roosevelt, in Greenbelt. And she said some parents have given up.
"We do see flight," Carriere said. "Every year I get messages from parents who say, 'I just can't do it anymore. I'm moving.' "
Staff writer V. Dion Haynes contributed to this report.