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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Boston Public Schools’ enrollment drops for 8th consecutive year

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper in September greeted students walking into class at Trotter Elementary School in Dorchester.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Boston Public Schools enrollment continued to tumble this year, even as public schools across Massachusetts saw slight rebounds in student numbers from the sharp declines triggered by the pandemic, according to a Globe analysis of new state data.

Overall, 48,268 students attended the district’s schools as of Oct. 1, down nearly 400 from the same point last year. This is the district’s eighth consecutive annual drop and brings the total loss of students over the last decade to more than 8,000, according to the analysis, which includes the district’s six in-district charter schools.

The long-term drop in Boston enrollment has multiple causes, including declining birth rates in the city, the expansion of charter schools until the city reached a state cap in 2018, and migration to the suburbs driven by housing costs and perceptions of school quality. Falling enrollment means less state and federal funds going to the district — and that potentially difficult decisions around consolidating underenrolled schools lie ahead.

“We now essentially have lost the equivalent of Framingham [student enrollment] from our district,” said Will Austin, chief executive of the Boston Schools Fund, which provides grants to district, charter, and private schools in Boston. “This is not a reflection on BPS, this is a reflection of how the city of Boston has changed over the last 10 to 20 years. We need a school system that adapts to that change.”

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The city and district are working to address housing costs and give families the schools they want, said Superintendent Mary Skipper, with college and career programs, rigorous academics, nice facilities, and extracurricular activities. “Our goal is to create a district where all families and students feel excited and confident to enroll in BPS and stay here,” Skipper said.

To improve school quality and reckon with the changes in enrollment — which include not just fewer students overall, but an increase in English language learners and prekindergarten students — city and district leaders plan to infuse about $2 billion into new school buildings and renovations through Mayor Michelle Wu’s Green New Deal initiative, which will incorporate school mergers and closures. But the city has long relied on rosy projections that assumed BPS would have more students than it did. In crafting its budget last year, for example, the district projected it would have about 1,000 students more than it does this fall.

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Last year, 96 out of the district’s 120 schools were underenrolled, resulting in the district spending an additional $50 million on schools that would have lost funding due to their smaller population, Austin said. That funding was necessary in recent years and supported by pandemic relief aid, but isn’t sustainable in the long run, he said.

“That’s $50 million you’re not spending on equitable literacy or mental health,” Austin said. He said BPS must either consolidate schools or change the way schools are funded.

This year, Austin said, the price tag of that underenrollment will likely rise. Austin called for the city to conduct a high-quality, long-term projection of BPS’ future enrollment that is more realistic, before sparking community conversations and drafting its facilities plan.

BPS officials said they allocated the $50 million to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and reduce harm to students. And, they added, BPS’ annual budget projections are supposed to ensure adequate funding throughout the school year for programs, not estimate the number of students they will have in October, as those numbers can rise later in the school year.

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The falling Black student population continues to drive enrollment declines districtwide; if the Black student population had held steady, enrollment would have increased by a couple dozen students, as the Latino enrollment rose by 200. Since 2003, Boston Public Schools has lost more than 15,000 Black students. Other large cities nationwide have also seen declines in district public school enrollment of Black students, including Los Angeles and Chicago. Like in many urban districts, there have been persistent achievement and opportunity gaps affecting Boston’s students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

“Parents are fleeing, looking for alternatives because their children need to be educated now,” said Edith Bazile, a former BPS administrator and past president of Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts. “The district is not moving with the urgency that’s required in this moment.”

Bazile called for the district to require use of its racial equity planning tool, which is aimed at ensuring students from historically marginalized backgrounds are considered at every level of decision-making. School closures, for example, are one of the many BPS decisions that have disproportionately harmed students of color, Bazile said.

Statewide, enrollment increased by about 2,000, to 913,735 students. But there are still 35,000 fewer students than there were pre-pandemic, after a significant drop going into the 2020-2021 school year. The very modest rebound this year indicates most of the families who left public schools in the depths of the pandemic have not come back.

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Stagnant and declining enrollment can carry financial consequences for school districts, as both state and federal aid are allocated on a per-pupil basis, noted Chad Aldeman, a researcher with Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab. Districts still have over a billion dollars in federal relief funds to help cushion the blow, but that money must be spent by September 2024.

Enrollment trends varied dramatically among the state’s largest districts. While all but Fall River had significant pandemic declines, some had large rebounds this year while others continued to fall. Worcester’s enrollment was up over 500 this year, although it remains more than 700 students below its pre-pandemic level. Brockton’s student population, meanwhile, continues to shrink rapidly, falling over 350 students since last year.

Around Greater Boston, most communities — including Brookline, Malden, Chelsea, and Revere — saw at least modest enrollment increases versus last year, but almost all remain lower than they were before schools shuttered because of COVID. One outlier is Everett Public Schools, which gained nearly 500 students in the past year, bringing its enrollment up about 3 percent relative to its pre-pandemic level.

Those increases, coupled with Boston’s declines, could point to the impact of gentrification and higher housing costs in the city, advocates said.

“It’s not surprising the neighboring suburbs are increasing,” said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, pointing to rising rents in East Boston and other neighborhoods. “What is Boston really doing to address this hemorrhaging of working-class families, especially families of color?”

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Not all neighboring cities saw increases in students. Some, like Milton, Dedham, Canton, and Newton, reported continued enrollment declines.


Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit. Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.