School Improvement, Options Drive DC’s Enrollment Growth

Washington D.C. public schools saw a 5% increase in enrollment this fall, The Washington Post reports. The number of students currently attending either traditional or charter schools – 81,000 kids in all – is the highest it's been in over a decade.

The enrollment figures released by the district late last week are considered preliminary as they are reported by the school to the central office and will be verified by an independent auditor before they are finalized. Although the numbers are expected to change slightly once the audit is complete, they are still a strong indicator that the enrollment declines experienced by the city over the last ten years are turning around.

Although all schools appeared to have gained students, charters account for most of the enrollment growth. According to Scott Pearson, the executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, these gains could either be an indication of parents transferring kids from private schools due to increase in school quality, or could be accounted for by parents who are making a choice to stay in the district rather than leaving for better schools elsewhere.

This is the fourth consecutive year of enrollment growth citywide. By far, most of the increase occurred in charter schools. Their enrollment jumped by 11 percent, to just over 35,000 students. D.C. charters, which are funded with taxpayer dollars but operated independently of the traditional school system, have expanded quickly in the past decade and now appear to comprise 43 percent of the total public school enrollment — two percentage points higher than last school year.

Although the self-reported numbers showed a slight uptick in enrollment for traditional public schools, there are some who believe that once the final estimates are in, they will be shown to have lost students compared to last year. On the whole, enrollment in traditional district schools has held steady over the past four years, but a look at more granular data paints a different picture.

While schools in higher-income neighborhoods are overcrowded, those teaching students in low-income and minority areas are operating partially empty. In light of that, district administrators are expected to announce a plan to close a number of schools considered to be chronically under-enrolled.

"We are actively working to improve our schools for all of our students," spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said in a statement. "We are hopeful with the strategic work we are doing, more families will continue to choose DCPS."

If nothing else, the figures clearly show that district parents have a good eye for quality when it comes to choosing a school for their children. New and well-performing charter schools accounted for most of the student gains, while those ranked badly by the Charter Board actually lost students.

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