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D.C. school enrollment hits 15-year high, mayor says

More than 96,000 students are attending traditional public and charter schools this year, according to preliminary data

Aiyira Banks, Ameiah Marshall and Brooklyn Bussie read sight words at the Center City Public Charter School in Congress Heights on Oct. 14. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Traditional public and charter school enrollment in the District has hit its highest point in more than a decade, with more than 96,000 students attending city schools, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Monday.

The figure represents an increase of almost 3 percent from last school year, or about 2,600 more students, according to preliminary data from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). Before the pandemic, public school enrollment had been growing by an average of about 1,600 students every school year since the 2007-2008 academic year, according to the D.C. Policy Center, a local research group. That progress stalled during the public health crisis.

Now, data shows not only a return to normal growth but higher enrollment than pre-pandemic levels. During the 2019-2020 school year, 43,942 students attended charter schools. Now that number stands at 46,449, representing 48 percent of the city’s total public school enrollment. Enrollment in D.C. public schools grew from 49,890 that school year to 50,204 this school year — its second-highest figure since OSSE began citywide counts of students in 2007.

“We know that when we invest in our school communities and provide opportunities and programs that challenge and engage students, families trust us. When families trust us — when they know that their children will be loved and challenged in our schools — that benefits our entire community,” Bowser said in a statement. During a news event, she added that while the new enrollment numbers have not yet been audited, the figures are encouraging.

The District’s figures come after stark enrollment drops that school systems throughout the country have suffered since the start of the pandemic. Those declines — along with other challenges including high absenteeism, teacher shortages, plummeting test scores, and political battles over what students should learn about race and gender — have challenged much of public education and, in many cases, eroded trust.

Washington-area schools have not been immune to enrollment slumps. Last year, preliminary data shared by districts in November showed that many had not yet rebounded.

In the District, the traditional public school system has struggled to hold on to steady enrollment increases. Meanwhile, the charter sector has grown almost every year since 2007. When the pandemic hit, growth ground to a near-halt.

Falling birthrates and droves of adults leaving the city or pulling their children out of schools during the pandemic were contributing to the citywide stagnation and anticipated decrease, according to a study from the D.C. Policy Center. As the pandemic went on, D.C. public schools saw the largest drops in the prekindergarten years. City data showed enrollment in that age group slumped by nearly 6 percent.

D.C. school enrollment expected to drop after years of increases

Officials said many families with 3- and 4-year-olds may have wanted to keep their children home until they could get vaccinated, or they may have found other child-care arrangements. Now, it appears those families are back. Prek-3 and prek-4 enrollment jumped by more than 6 and 5 percent, respectively, since last school year, officials said.

“These enrollment numbers are positive indicators for our school communities as we rebound from the challenges the covid-19 pandemic presented the last few years,” Lewis D. Ferebee, the system’s chancellor, said in a statement.

The public school system also noted an 8 percent rise in ninth-grade enrollment and a 13 percent jump among 10th-graders.

Chelsea Coffin, director of the D.C. Policy Center’s Education Policy Initiative, said it’s typical to see enrollment grow in early high school. Enrollment in D.C. schools has historically peaked at kindergarten and then steadily declined until the ninth grade, she said.

What remains to be seen, she said, is whether this increase is the beginning of a long-term gain, propelled by students entering the system in earlier grades, or a short-term blip driven by high-schoolers who will graduate in a few years.

“Pre-K has been a great gateway, a great way for families and students to start at an elementary school and stay,” Coffin said. “For the future of enrollment, is this increasing the base of students enrolling in early grades, or is this a temporary increase in the enrollment in upper grades that may disappear?”

Bowser, who announced the enrollment shifts at the city’s Advanced Technical Center, said new programs can attract new students to the city’s schools. The career preparation program, which is operated by OSSE and currently housed at Trinity Washington University, is a place where students can take high school and college-level courses in cybersecurity, general nursing and health information technology.

The effort is expanding, Bowser said, and will move to a permanent location at the Penn Center building in Northeast Washington next school year. “We know that investing in high-quality programming is critical to the success of our students, but also to attracting more families to our public school system.”

More on local education

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On campus: The University of Maryland has pledged to expand aid for in-state students who have significant financial need. What the twists, turns and drops of roller coasters are teaching Johns Hopkins University students about engineering.