For nearly a decade, Boston Public Schools has experienced a steady decline in student enrollment, complicating its multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild aging buildings and staff for a population largely from low-income households and with high needs.
But there’s been one source of new students that has helped mitigate this drop: an influx of migrants who have surged into Massachusetts over the past year.
And for the current academic year, those new students helped keep the overall decline below 1 percent, according to state data released in December, to 45,742 students as of Oct. 1. Nonetheless, it is the ninth consecutive year of declining student numbers.
While the additional migrant students raise hopes the district’s classroom numbers might be stabilizing, it adds to the challenges BPS faces educating the rising number of students who are non-native English speakers.
Meanwhile, advocates argue that the district, which has struggled to accurately predict enrollment numbers for long-term planning and budgeting, still needs to urgently address the root causes of its declining enrollment, which they say is likely to continue.
BPS has hemorrhaged students over the past nearly 10 years, leaving school leaders, parents, and community members concerned about the financial impact to the district, which receives state aid on a largely per-pupil basis. Without consolidation of schools and bus routes, declining enrollment means less funding for BPS, with resources spread thinner across the district. Since 2015, the district’s enrollment has decreased by nearly 16 percent, or about 8,570 students, with the most dramatic losses following the start of the pandemic.
Advocates point to a multitude of factors for the decline, including gentrification and the shortage of affordable housing, students withdrawing during the pandemic and failing to return when schools reopened, and declining birth rates in the city.
But while Boston students and families continue to leave BPS for neighboring districts, charter schools, and parochial schools, those losses are now being offset by migrant students enrolling in BPS, district representatives said.
“Similar to other urban districts, BPS’s enrollment has been declining over the past decade, but our enrollment is stabilizing, largely due to the increase in multilingual learners, some of whom are newly arrived in Boston and are enrolling in Boston Public Schools,” said district spokesperson Max Baker in a statement to the Globe.
While the number of white, Asian, and Black students in the district has continued to drop since 2020, the number of Hispanic or Latino students in BPS edged up in 2022-23 and 2023-24 after dropping significantly in 2020-21 and 2021-22. The number of students learning English in the district has also rebounded.
The district recently has said many of the newcomers have been from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Colombia, Cape Verde, Brazil, and Guatemala. And across the state, the number of migrant students in public high schools tripled over the last 15 years, with a record 5,600 migrant students in 2022, the last year examined, according to a recent study by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.
But advocates say the district cannot rely on the increased enrollment of multilingual learners to solve the district’s problem of declining enrollment, which began long before this most recent influx of migrants.
Will Austin, chief executive of the Boston Schools Fund, which provides grants to district, charter, and private schools in Boston, also said the enrollment of newcomers and those learning English in Boston is not new.
“That was a pretty important trend in the city over the last 20 years that was interrupted during the Trump era immigration policies and COVID,” Austin said. “So I wouldn’t necessarily describe what’s happened in the last two years to be necessarily new. It’s a recurrence.”
Advocates agree that more needs to be done to address the root causes of the steady decline in enrollment. Affordable housing policies, they say, need to be at the forefront of that strategy.
“Families of color, working-class families, low-income families as a whole are leaving the city in droves ... because they can’t afford to live here,” said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance.
Austin said the city is “long overdue for a rigorous, independent enrollment analysis and projection” so that district leadership can understand population trends when developing long-term plans for the district and the city.
Based on what has worked for other cities, he said, it comes down to more affordable family housing and investment in school quality by renovating facilities and establishing high-demand programs.
“If there’s a way to kind of reverse this trend, it’s those two things,” he said.
The stakes for solving the problem are high.
As enrollment has tumbled, the district has spent millions annually to keep underenrolled campuses — schools with too few students — open. The district also is bracing for an end to federal pandemic relief money and expects to make budget cuts and staff reductions in the next fiscal budget. The reduced funding brought on by declining enrollment could make those cuts even more severe.
The increase in Latino students and those learning English in BPS comes as the district, which has historically struggled to educate non-English speaking students, recently announced a controversial plan to overhaul its programming for those students. Instead of learning core content in their native language, students learning English would spend most of the day with their English-speaking peers, being separated only for direct English instruction.
Critics said the plan will lead to worse academic outcomes for English learners. A majority of the members of the district’s English Learners task force resigned in protest of the plan.
Ed Lambert, the executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said the district will have to face some tough choices to address declining enrollment numbers while ensuring new students are receiving the academic and language services they need to be successful.
“Are we doing what’s right for students?” Lambert said. “If we don’t downsize consistent with the student population decline ... then you’re spending an amount per pupil that really doesn’t give each and every one of the students all the resources that they need.
Mayor Michelle Wu’s Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools, which aims to spend more than $2 billion to overhaul the district’s aging facilities and address declining enrollment, contemplates closing and merging some schools.
Reyes and other advocates have called for BPS to keep equity a priority, and merge and close schools only after collecting community input, ensuring they do not disproportionately affect students of color, who make up a majority of students in the district.
“They’re not comprehensively addressing the needs of students of color in ways that help them and support them, and I think that’s part of the problem,” Reyes said.