School & District Management

Dips in Enrollment Posing Challenges for Urban Districts

By John Gehring — March 01, 2005 9 min read
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Detroit, reeling from the loss of some 35,000 students in less than a decade, will close 34 schools and reassign more than 10,000 students next school year. But while the city’s financial free-fall has made national headlines, its public school system isn’t alone in grappling with a continuing enrollment drain.

Across the nation, urban school districts are losing students and shuttering schools. The trend isn’t limited to Rust Belt cities like Detroit, although their problems tend to be more dramatic. Population shifts, steep housing costs, open-enrollment policies, and competition from charter schools are reshaping city school districts.

In addition to Detroit—which one education expert described as being in a “death spiral”—districts in Akron, Ohio; Baltimore; Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland; Kansas City, Mo.; Minneapolis; Oakland, Calif.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Portland, Ore.; St. Louis; and Seattle are contending with enrollment losses. Fewer students, of course, means less state aid to spend, even as some expenses remain fixed.

The declines come at a time when the total number of pre-K-12 public school students nationally has increased from 43 million in 1993 to 48.2 million in 2004, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and is expected to grow to an all-time high of 49.7 million in 2013.

‘Losing Faith’

Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, said that while middle-class families have been leaving urban districts for years, they are not the only ones looking for an out these days.

“The recent trends seem to show low-income families are also losing faith in these districts and are looking for alternatives,” Mr. Simmons said. “This is a critical issue. What this means is that districts have to attend not only to how they change individual schools, but they have to figure out how they create systems to take school reform to scale.”

Philadelphia and New York City, he said, offer models for how urban school systems can tap universities, community-based groups, and other outside organizations to revive districts with a range of services and partnerships.

“There is a whole new infrastructure that is required now to educate students to a higher standard,” Mr. Simmons said.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington group that represents large urban districts, said many urban districts experiencing a loss of students—including Baltimore and Detroit—have also seen notable academic gains. Other city districts, he added, have seen enrollment increases, including the 230,000-student Clark County, Nev., school system, which includes Las Vegas.

“We have to improve student performance, but we also have to improve how we talk about our schools to the community,” Mr. Casserly said. “We need to do a better job talking about the benefits and advantages of staying in these district schools. We are finally realizing we have to sell ourselves and the services our schools provide.”

More Competition

In Detroit, district leaders point to recent competition from more than two dozen charter schools, which are public but largely independent, as a factor exacerbating years of urban flight and lower birthrates that have cut the schools’ enrollment from a high of 295,000 in 1968 to 148,000 today.

David Plank, a co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing, said urban districts like Detroit are caught in a dilemma: Closing schools becomes financially necessary, but further erodes the public’s confidence in the future.

“The money goes away, schools have to cut programs, and parents take their kids out,” he said. “There is no way that once a district is launched on this path they can reverse that spiral. It’s self-reinforcing.”

Urban districts in Ohio are in a similar predicament. In the past decade, according to an Akron Beacon Journal analysis, 42,000 students have left the state’s “Big 8” districts, which collectively enroll some 262,000 students. A combination of declining city populations, competition from charter schools, and a state open-enrollment law that gives families more educational options were cited as the top reasons.

One recent study showed urban districts in Ohio have lost about $225 million in state aid this year alone to charter schools, according to the Coalition for Public Education, a state group calling for a moratorium on charters.

In Cleveland, the public schools had about 100,000 students two decades ago. At 66,000 students today, the district is a shadow of its former self. About 8,000 pupils have left the regular public schools for charters since 1998, which last year alone cost the district more than $50 million in state aid tied to enrollment.

District leaders have considered dropping some sports programs, and could close 14 schools to help fill a projected $28 million deficit in its nearly billion dollar budget. Cleveland voters rejected a property-tax increase last fall.

Sylvester Small, the superintendent of the Akron schools, describes enrollment declines as one of the most pressing issues his district and other urban systems in Ohio are facing. The 27,000-student district has lost about 17,000 students over the past two decades. More than 600 students who live in Akron now attend schools in neighboring districts under the open-enrollment law.

In response, the Akron schools have worked harder to promote themselves through advertising and by enlisting parents and teachers to talk to community members about the benefits of the district.

The district also opened a Digital Academy charter school two years ago for grades K-12 that serves home-schooled students and high school students not attending traditional classes.

“Urban districts are going to have to accept we are no longer a monopoly,” Mr. Small said. “It’s a new concept for us. Everybody is fighting for the market out there.”

‘Lack of Incentive’

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, an organization based in Washington that advocates charters and other school options, agrees.

“Urban education has been plagued by non-child-friendly union contracts, bureaucracy, and a lack of incentive to improve,” she said. “If you’re not educating kids and they are leaving, you should not get paid for it. It’s an odd concept, and pretty arrogant, for districts to demand to be paid when they are losing kids because they have gone somewhere else to get served.”

Examples from urban districts around the nation show the extent of the challenges school leaders are grappling with:

• Enrollment in the 32,000-student Pittsburgh public schools has dropped by about 6,000 students since 2000 as population in the city has declined, but the district still has building capacity for about 50,000 students. The school board voted to close 12 schools last year, and another round of closures is expected.

• The 43,000-student Minneapolis public schools have lost 6,000 students in the past three years as more families have left the city for surrounding suburban districts and a growing network of charter schools. The state’s largest district is now the suburban Anoka-Hennepin public schools. Minneapolis school leaders will be forced to close 17 schools in the next few years.

• In Buffalo, the 38,000-student district has lost more than 8,000 students in the past seven years. Enrollment is projected to shrink to under 30,000 by 2012. Five years ago, two charter schools with several hundred students were operating in the city. There are now more than a dozen charters with some 4,700 students operating at a $58 million expense to the district.

• The St. Louis public schools have closed 21 schools in the past three years to address enrollment declines in the 36,000-student district. The system has lost more than 4,000 students in the past five years.

• In Kansas City, Mo., enrollment has dropped by almost 5,000 students since 2000. District leaders say they must cut $20 million from the system’s $308 million budget next year, and close or consolidate several schools to use resources more efficiently.

• In Oregon’s Portland district, Superintendent Vicki Phillips has proposed a series of school mergers and boundary changes. The 50,000-student district lost 1,200 students last year—the equivalent of several elementary schools.

• In Baltimore, district leaders are working to restructure schools and think more creatively to keep families from leaving the 91,000-student system, which has lost about 18,000 students since 1997.

When administrators there took a closer look at why families pulled their children out during the middle school years, only to come back for high school, they responded by establishing more K-8 schools to replace the large middle schools that parents said were not working. Baltimore now has more than 30 K-8 public schools and is making an effort to form smaller, more personalized high schools.

“You have to be proactive,” said Jeff Grotsky, the chief of staff for the district. “We continue to talk to parents to find out why they are leaving. Anybody in a leadership position in a district that is losing population needs to dig deep and make adjustments. You can’t just throw up your hands and say, ‘These are the cards we have been dealt.’ ”

Even as some districts point to charter schools as a factor in enrollment declines, others are getting into the chartering game.

Getting in the Game

“We think charters offer some of the best solutions for our kids,” said Barak Ben-Gal, the special assistant to the state administrator who runs California’s Oakland public schools. “We are trying to incorporate charters as much as we can.”

Oakland has 20 district-sponsored charter schools, which are part of its overall school improvement plan.

Charter schools sponsored by a district, as opposed to an outside organization, give the public system oversight over curriculum and in some cases allow the district to provide services such as purchasing and transportation.

The 43,000-student Oakland district has lost almost 10,000 students in the past five years, and has tracked 2,000 of those students as moving to charter schools.

But officials there are even more concerned that rising housing prices are keeping families with school-age children from moving into Oakland—an issue plaguing other districts in the San Francisco Bay area as well.

Seattle public school officials also point to rising housing costs as keeping families with children away from the city schools, which have lost 18,000 students since 1998. The 46,000-student district does not project enrollment increases for at least a decade and is closing or consolidating dozens of schools. In 1968, the district operated 117 buildings. This school year, 94 buildings are open, even though the system serves about half of the number of students as it did that year.

“There was this hope that families would move into the region, but they are moving into the suburbs,” said Peter Daniels, the district’s communication director. “We are carrying a lot of excess capacity.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Dips in Enrollment Posing Challenges For Urban Districts


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