Thousands of additional students expected in public schools by 2026, new report says

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DC’s public school system has been plastered across scandal-driven headlines the past year, with city officials dealing with leadership turmoil, subpar graduation returns and allegations of attendance fraud. And, despite ongoing capacity challenges in parts of DC, education officials will likely have to find a way manage substantial enrollment growth over the next decade, according to a new report from the D.C. Policy Center.

The report — published today and written by Chelsea Coffin, director of the center’s Education Policy Initiative — projects that the annual enrollment in the city’s traditional public and public charter schools will see an increase of 21,000 students by the 2026-27 school year. Much of that growth, according to the report, will come from outside the boundary of Wilson High School in Tenleytown and its nearby feeder network — the only area in the city where the majority of school-age residents attend their neighborhood school.

Deal Middle School is part of the Wilson High School feeder pattern, the only part of the city where families strongly prefer in-boundary schools. (Photo courtesy of DC Public Schools)

Growth on that scale is contingent upon a higher percentage of DC’s students choosing public education over private schools, the report says. More than half of the projected growth — 11,600 students — would be concentrated in middle schools within the next three school years and in high schools within the next eight. Growth is expected thanks to an increasing population since 2000 of residents between 20 and 34 years old who now have school-age children.

“Improving the attractiveness of schools for future middle and high school students is essential to continued growth in public school enrollment — and most of this will happen outside the Wilson High School boundary,” Coffin writes.

The DC Public Schools system currently has 115 schools with close to 49,000 students enrolled, and the city also boasts 123 charter schools with more than 40,000 students. Growing interest in the city’s public schools has put pressure on DC officials to implement policies that improve the city’s education offerings, both in terms of infrastructure and programs. Mayor Muriel Bowser has, since taking office in 2015, placed a strong priority on achieving growth in that sector, continuing a flurry of school modernization projects begun by her predecessors and undertaking initiatives geared toward improving pipelines from middle to high school and high school to college. But Bowser’s administration has been criticized by many education advocates for falling short of its lofty goals.

The stakes are high for the city if the growth outlined in today’s report comes to pass. “Millennials’ decision to continue to stay in the city and enroll any children in the District’s public schools could significantly alter the city’s fiscal picture, both in terms of tax revenue it can collect and in terms of resources necessary to provide public services, especially in the District’s public schools,” Coffin writes.

Growth in middle and high schools would mark a notable turnaround from the last decade, which saw a decline of almost 500 students citywide attending eighth grade, and almost no change among 12th-graders. If the policy center’s projections come to fruition, eighth grade will grow by 1,800 students and 12th grade will see an increase of 1,500 students by 2026.

An overall increase of 21,000 students would top the increase of 14,000 students over the last 10 years, according to the report.

Population growth in DC among the millennial generation — roughly including people born in the 1980s and 1990s — has been slow to yield major public school enrollment, according to the report, because more women are giving birth later in life than in previous generations.

But early indications suggest that students born to millennials are less likely than previous generations to transition out of public school midway through their education. When comparing elementary students born in 1998 with those born in the last three years, Coffin found that year-to-year retention in the public school system has increased slightly at all grade levels.

Much of the enrollment growth is expected outside of the Wilson High School boundary in Ward 3, where many of the city’s public schools are located. The number of families with school-age children living in neighborhoods in Northeast and Southeast is expected to increase as current residents grow older and move out of their homes, and as development flourishes in those areas.

Brian Doyle, co-chair of the Ward 3-Wilson Feeder Education Network, believes city officials need to work carefully to ensure the school system is equipped to take on additional students in the coming years. In an email interview, Doyle said he’s seen the effect of overcrowding on schools in the Wilson feeder system, and he believes turning the tide will come down to creating “excellent neighborhood schools” throughout the city.

Due to its robust in-boundary and feeder population, Wilson High School now struggles to enroll its more than 1,900 students in full course loads, thanks to ballooning class sizes and an insufficient amount of classroom space, according to Doyle. Those conditions also threaten to undermine the quality of education for students, he said.

DC Public Schools has yet to offer an overarching plan to address these concerns, though the city has a new Master Facilities Plan in the works that observers hope will point to the future.

“At some point, it will simply be the case that no additional students will fit in some schools, and DCPS will have to take emergency measures,” Doyle said. “We are close to that point.”

Doyle thinks challenges have arisen in part because the number of charter schools has grown without a strategy to address the overall city’s facilities needs. A working group established in 2016 to foster collaboration between public and charter schools has yet to produce concrete solutions, he says.

Without overarching planning, I very much doubt we will meet the rising needs that we will have,” Doyle said. “We will have too much duplication and wasted resources.”

Further analysis on enrollment patterns is slated for release on Sept. 28. Last year, the DC Council provided funding for the Office of the DC Auditor to undertake a DC Public Schools Enrollment Study. The 21st Century School Fund, the Urban Institute and Cooperative Strategies have worked since January to assess the accuracy of the school system’s current methodology for developing enrollment projections, compared with best practices used elsewhere.

Mary Filardo and Will Perkins of the 21st Century School Fund provided a preliminary report Monday night at a meeting of the Ward 3-Wilson Feeder Education Network. Without revealing the study’s findings, they offered the group’s members a preview. The report will include 10 years of data on building capacities and on school-by-school enrollment, broken down by grade — information that parent-advocates said is often either unavailable to the public or of dubious accuracy.

“There are still some holes,” Filardo said of the data that researchers have compiled and scrubbed in preparing the enrollment study. “But it is now a longitudinal database.”

The study prepared for the auditor’s office will also provide five- and 10-year enrollment projections and a “replicable methodology” that the District can use in future years, according to Filardo and Perkins in their presentation Monday night.

Chris Kain contributed to this report.

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