The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charting D.C. schools’ road to recovery, from enrollment to retention

Lower college completion, falling teacher retention and other trends in D.C. schools explained

A report from the D.C. Policy Center examines the 2021-2022 school year for D.C. public schools. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
7 min

In the year that D.C. schools fully reopened after being forced to shutter campuses because of the pandemic, math and reading proficiency plummeted, more high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless, and scores of teachers left their jobs. Out of every 100 ninth-graders, eight were forecast to finish college within six years of high school graduation.

Those findings are part of a report from the D.C. Policy Center that shows the extent of the challenges D.C. schools endured in the 2021-2022 school year, a term marked by low test scores, rising absenteeism and a greater demand for mental health services — reflecting trends in education seen nationwide.

“It’s sobering to look at where we are today,” Christina Grant, D.C.’s state superintendent of education, said about the report’s findings. But she also noted the city’s gains. Enrollment hit a 15-year high this school year, and graduation rates have continued to improve. Thousands of children have received small-group tutoring, thanks to an infusion of federal and local funding designed to helped schools recover from the pandemic that upended student life. “In D.C., we may get down, but we don’t stay down,” she said.

The report also outlines how the city can continue navigating the fallout of the pandemic, including suggestions from students to provide safe transportation to school and to hire more teachers.

Following are five charts that explain key takeaways from the report, and trends in D.C.’s traditional public and charter schools — including enrollment, outcomes for graduates, and how D.C. is spending more than a half-billion dollars in federal coronavirus relief funding — using data from D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education and analyses from the D.C. Policy Center.


More than a decade of annual enrollment growth in the city came to a halt during the pandemic as adults left the city or pulled their children out of public schools. (The report does not address where those students ended up.) Those changes have coincided with a drop in birthrates — researchers noted births in D.C. have declined 2 percent each year since 2016 — that is causing enrollment drops for school systems across the country.

Out of all the children who enrolled in D.C. schools during the 2021-2022 school year, 11 percent had entered the previous two years as new students — a two-point drop from pre-pandemic school years. The rate of students leaving D.C. schools has held steady at 16 percent.

Researchers noted there were fewer new Latino students after the pandemic began, with the share of new children falling from 19 to 15 percent. Meanwhile, a quarter of White students left D.C. schools during the pandemic, an increase from 19 percent of children who exited between 2017-2018 and 2019-2020. Researchers said the change for White students was particularly pronounced after prekindergarten and in elementary grades.

Graduation and higher education

D.C. has seen recent gains in its high school completion rates. In 2020, 31 out of every 100 ninth-graders would not finish high school. In 2022, that number dropped to 25.

There are many paths outside college to a successful career, but postsecondary enrollment is the only metric D.C. tracks. More students are finishing high school, but fewer are enrolling in college within six months of graduation, possibly because of financial pressures caused by the pandemic or concerns about virtual learning, researchers said.

Still, D.C. students who do enter college often do not make it to graduation. Researchers estimate that out of every 100 students in the city’s ninth-grade cohort, just eight will complete some postsecondary education within six years of graduating from high school, down from 14 out of 100 students before the pandemic. Thirty students will enroll but not finish within six years; 37 will not enroll in college at all.

Grant, during a panel discussion on the report’s findings, acknowledged there is room for improvement but also highlighted recent investments in career-prep and scholarship programs — including the Advanced Technical Center, where high-schoolers can take courses in cybersecurity, general nursing and health information technology for college credit. The city last year launched the DC Futures Program, which gives students up to $8,000 if they study in high-demand fields at the University of the District of Columbia, Catholic University or Trinity Washington University.

While fewer D.C. students are going to college, more are graduating from high school — a bright spot for the city.

Overall, nearly 75 percent of students graduated at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, up roughly two points from the year prior and about four points from the 2019-2020 school year. Researchers noted recent investments in improving the student experience, including redesign efforts to make high school more relevant for students and new funding for over-age students. Students who are older than average are deemed by the city as “at risk” for academic failure, often because they have had to repeat grades.

D.C. Public Schools, however, has faced scrutiny over whether students properly earn their diplomas. A 2018 report, commissioned by OSSE, described a culture within the school system of passing students even if they didn’t meet graduation requirements. Lewis D. Ferebee, the system’s chancellor, said in December that district leaders have since tightened graduation requirements and regularly monitor metrics such as grades and attendance.

Covid relief funding

D.C. has received more than $540 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, dollars meant to help the city’s traditional public and charter schools recover from the pandemic.

Last fall, D.C. had reported spending 23 percent of those funds, the bulk of which had been used to support “accelerated learning,” a broad category that includes efforts such as tutoring, after-school activities and professional development for teachers, researchers said. The city has since allocated more of those funds, reportedly spending more than 40 percent of them as of Wednesday.

City leaders have often touted investments in high-impact tutoring, which consists of intense and consistent individual or small-group support. Those efforts have reached about 7 percent of students citywide, researchers said, between the launch in May 2021 and December 2022. D.C. education officials have a goal of providing these services to 10,000 students — about 10 percent of the city’s entire enrollment — by 2024.

Other dollars have been used to improve schools’ climate and drive attendance. Chunita Pilgrim, principal at Burrville Elementary School in Northeast Washington, bought T-shirts to not only promote school pride, but also to help children who need something to wear. “We don’t want clothes to be an issue,” Pilgrim said. The school also keeps detergent on hand for students to get their uniforms washed. “We want our students in the building. We want them there every single day.”

Teacher retention

The retention rate for teachers — defined as the share of educators who stay in the same position at the same school as the year before — rose, then fell, over the course of the pandemic. Retention reached a peak between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, when 81 percent of teachers stayed at their schools. When educators returned to in-person classrooms, that number fell to 74 percent.

This past year, 70 percent of teachers were retained at their schools, falling further, back to pre-pandemic levels.

D.C. is also keeping a smaller share of its teachers overall — 20 percent either left their jobs or changed roles between 2021-2022 and 2022-2023, compared with 15 percent the year prior and 13 percent after the pandemic started.

The D.C. Council recently approved a labor contract with the Washington Teachers’ Union that includes salary increases and benefits. Still, advocates have urged the city to do more to keep its teachers. D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) introduced legislation Wednesday that would satisfy some of those demands, including paid mental health leave and flexible scheduling.