Prince George’s County public schools have lost more students over the past eight years than any other Washington suburban system, averaging an enrollment decline of more than 1,000 students a year.
At its peak, the county had 137,285 students in the 2003-04 school year and was struggling with crowded campuses. Now, enrollment stands at 123,833. The drop amounts to more than 13,400 students, nearly 10 percent.
Most school systems in Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs are stable or growing. None has had such a large decline.
Meanwhile, the number of Prince George’s students from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals has risen from nearly 56,000 in 2008 to almost 67,000 this year, an increase of almost 20 percent.
“It is a problem,” Christian Rhodes, education liaison for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), said of the enrollment decline in an interview this month. “It is an extremely big issue for us, one that we are not taking lightly. When we lose students, we lose our ability to be competitive with our neighbors for education dollars, economic development and quality of life.”
In recent years, Prince George’s has made considerable progress in state test scores. But the system has been plagued by a history of low achievement in many schools, political infighting and rapid leadership turnover.
Prince George’s school officials are seeking to reverse the enrollment trend by offering parents more choice, building community partnerships and improving the overall quality of education. The system remains the third-largest in the Washington area.
But the largest system, Fairfax County, has added more than 13,000 students in the past eight years, reaching an enrollment of 177,606. Montgomery County, the second-largest, gained more than 7,000 and now has 146,976 students.
Enrollment in the D.C. Public Schools is sharply down since 2003-04, with many students moving to independent public charter schools. But the D.C. system’s enrollment has stabilized in recent years, and the city’s total public enrollment, counting charter schools, has risen by more than 1,600 students since 2003-04, to 76,753.
In Prince George’s, a number of factors contribute to the hemorrhaging, including the foreclosure crisis, private and parochial school attendance and mistrust of the school system. There are also fewer families with school-age children in the county.
What frustrates officials is they have no control over one large reason for the decline: the housing market.
“A lot of the people who have been in foreclosure have moved, whether they have moved out of the county or moved with family in other areas,” said Bea Tignor, a former school board member.
The share of vacant housing units jumped from 5.2 percent in 2000 to 7.4 percent in 2010, according to the county Planning Department.
In 2010, Prince George’s had 11,810 foreclosure filings, more than any other jurisdiction in Maryland. And so far this year, the county continues to account for about a third of the state’s foreclosures.
The county also has lost residents to outlying suburbs. About 12,600 moved to Charles, Anne Arundel and Howard counties from 2005 to 2008, according to county demographers.
The system does not conduct exit interviews with parents. School board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5) said she would like to know more about why parents decide to remove children from public schools, often in secondary grades.
Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., in office since 2008, said the system is considering sending surveys to parents who teach children at home or enroll them in private schools.
The 2010 Census found a decline in the share of county households with children under age 18. In 2000, 35.3 percent had children under age 18. Ten years later, the percentage dropped to 30.6 percent.
The school system also has had trouble gaining the trust of parents who stay in the county.
Howard Stone, a former school board member, said it could take five to 10 years for the system to win over parents, even counting the recent progress.
“I think Dr. Hite is making strides,” Stone said. “But people don’t play around with their kids. You only have one chance, and even though the economy is such as it is and payments for private schools are hard to meet, parents will do what they have to do.”
At Highland Park Christian Academy, which has ties to the First Baptist Church of Highland Park, a school that started as a day-care operation in 1983 now has 231 students through eighth grade. Tuition ranges from $6,000 to $7,700 a year.
“As much as we pay in property taxes, and with Prince George’s County being the wealthiest black county in the country, it seems like the school system should be further along,” said J.R. Fenwick of Bowie, who has two daughters at the academy. “Every time you turn around we have a new superintendent. You hear about the cutbacks in programs and after-school programs. This was just the right choice for us.”
But not everyone has given up on the school system.
Karen Holston, an Upper Marlboro resident, said her daughter Tierra attends Charles H. Flowers High School and her son Terry attends Riverdale Baptist School, where tuition ranges from $9,144 to $10,872 a year. She has toyed with the idea of sending Tierra to the private school too.
“There have been some challenges” in dealing with Flowers teachers, Holston said, but she remains somewhat satisfied. “My older son graduated from Flowers. My sister graduated from Flowers, so I figured I would be okay with Flowers.”
Hite said the only way the school system can compete is to provide quality and to offer choices and distinctive programs, such as the fire science program at Flowers High and a student-run bank at Parkdale High School. The system in the last few years also has authorized several charter schools.
“Parents associate good schools with good teaching,” Hite said. “It comes down to getting more quality, effective teachers in front of all students. . . . Our commitment to address teaching and learning becomes a critical part of this conversation.”
The superintendent said the system also has to do a better job of engaging parents who are sending their children to public schools.
“Individuals are going to engage with a system that they see is effective, one that is providing a high level of service, efficient and well run,” Hite said. “We have to produce results that show we are tackling problems that have historically been attached to this district around achievement.
“Other schools are recruiting our students. We can’t take for granted that we are the only choice in town. We have a brand to sell.”