Enrollment in the Boston Public Schools this year dropped below 50,000 students for the first time in decades, a worrisome marker that continues a lengthy period of declining enrollment for the state’s largest school district, according to a Globe analysis of state data released Thursday.
Overall, 48,654 students are attending 122 schools in the district, a decrease of more than 2,000 students from the last school year, according to the analysis, which combines student enrollment for BPS and its six in-district charter schools, which the state reports separately.
Over the past decade, the school system has shrunk by about 8,000 students, more than half of which occurred over the past two years.
The new data come on the heels of the School Committee asking Superintendent Brenda Cassellius Wednesday to develop a new 10-year master facilities plan, and as the board considers a request from Cassellius to shut two middle schools and an elementary school. However, a portion of Cassellius’ request seeks to add modular classrooms to several elementary schools so they can absorb the sixth grades from the closed schools.
The drop in student numbers in Boston runs counter to enrollment statewide, which is holding steady at 911,529 after experiencing a notable drop last year due to the pandemic. Some 37,000 fewer students enrolled in public schools statewide last year as families frustrated with school closures fled to private schools or other education options. It appears those families have not come back.
Across Massachusetts, many districts saw only slight variations in enrollment. Brookline, where enrollment dropped by nearly 900 students last year, added just a few dozen students this year, bringing its numbers to 6,928.
The Boston school system attributed a variety of factors to its sliding enrollment, including fewer births, less immigration, and rising housing values, rather than a shift in rates of families choosing BPS. To counter the decline, the district has also increased advertising in multilingual media, on MBTA vehicles and in stations, and on billboards, a spokesperson said.
“We are grateful to the students, families, and team who call BPS home, and are committed to providing an excellent and equitable education for all students,” a spokesperson said.
In Newton, where enrollment in the previous school year declined by more than 700 students, the school system experienced another decline, albeit a smaller one of 50 students. It’s overall head count is now 11,974. Similarly, Somerville has 18 fewer students this year, following a decline of about 250 last year.
Stagnant and declining enrollment can carry a financial consequence for school districts. Both state and federal aid are allocated on a per-pupil basis. However, a significant infusion of federal stimulus money to help districts recover from the pandemic might help soften any financial hit.
Larry DiCara, a former Boston city councilor who has researched the decline in BPS enrollments, said there are several causes for shrinking numbers. There are fewer families with children living in the city than in the past, parents have more options about where to send their children, and some parents don’t trust the public schools or become frustrated by the arcane student assignment process, he said.
“The same kinds of demographic changes have impacted Boston as have impacted San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York City, other jurisdictions,” DiCara said. “And the reality is, if you are a family with children — and I raised three children in the city — you do not have as much disposable income as people without kids. It’s simple arithmetic.”
In Jamaica Plain, where DiCara lives, and in other city neighborhoods, couples and single people who can afford higher rents or condo prices have “indirectly displaced” families with children, he said. And with home values booming during the pandemic, people who own property in Boston have more incentive than ever to sell and move elsewhere, including many longtime residents with families, he said.
“If [you] inherited a three-decker, guess what? You’re rich!” he said.
Will Austin, chief executive of the Boston School Fund, said the acceleration in Boston’s enrollment decline over the past two years raises further questions about the school system’s current long-term facilities plan, BuildBPS, which already included rosy enrollment projections. For instance, the plan projected that more than 55,000 students would be enrolled in the school system this fall, which excluded the roughly 2,500 preschoolers in the district.
“It’s up to the district to determine what the future of BuildBPS is now given all this data,” said Austin. “You can’t have a big open house to solve this problem. “
The decline in enrollment could reflect family frustration with the school system, said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance.
“I think the lack of communication and transparency is really what impacts family choice,” she said. “You have parents involved in schools, but they still get blind sided by changes.”
The Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor at Twelfth Baptist Church and a member of the BPS task force on opportunity and achievement gaps, said he hoped the district would not rush to change budgets or close schools, but rather use the enrollment decline as an opportunity to assess how to better serve students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners.
“This dynamic will have an effect on other decisions that the district will make,” Bodrick said. “Our hope is that we don’t lose focus on the equity issues that are necessary to address.”
Naomi Martin of the Globe staff and correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.