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NYC public schools have lost 31,000 students this fall, preliminary data show

November 12, 2020 Alex Zimmerman, Amy Zimmer, and Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee, Chalkbeat New York
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This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

One family left their Harlem public school for Montana, while a Brooklyn family stayed put, but placed their children in Catholic school. Another dad kept his son home to teach the third grader himself. Meanwhile some students may be dropping out of school entirely to find jobs to support their families.

The reasons vary, but one thing is clear: Public school enrollment is falling at schools across New York City, according to preliminary data obtained by Chalkbeat. School rosters have already lost about 31,000 students compared with last year — or 3.4 percent of the district’s enrollment, which now stands just over 901,000, not including charters or early childhood programs.

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The losses could hurt schools’ bottom lines as soon as this winter, when principals are typically required to forfeit some of their budget if their enrollment is lower than projected. Mid-year budget losses could be particularly difficult this year because many principals are struggling to scrounge up enough staff to cover two different versions of school simultaneously, in person and remote.

“Unstable staffing patterns, unstable dollars, often lead to worse outcomes for kids,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Especially during a pandemic when principals have already had to scramble to deploy staff in this complex mix of online and face-to-face instruction.”

Elementary and middle schools saw bigger declines, while high school enrollment essentially remained flat, a Chalkbeat analysis of internal department records found. Enrollment losses were also more concentrated among schools serving a higher portion of upper-income communities. But overall, far more students have left schools with higher shares of low-income families, which represent the vast majority of schools in New York City.

The city’s most affluent schools, where 20 percent or fewer students are low income, saw enrollment drop by 12 percent, a loss of about 2,800 students. At schools where more than 80 percent of students are from low-income families, enrollment dropped 4 percent. That loss added up to nearly 19,000 students.

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Other major school systems have also seen declines, including in Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago, which has seen its largest enrollment drop in 20 years. Enrollment in the New York City’s district schools has been declining for years, likely owing to a mix of factors and demographic trends, including growth in charter school enrollment.

But this year’s decline is steeper — and is similar in magnitude to the cumulative drop over a dozen years, from 2006-2018.

New York City’s data comes with some caveats. The internal data Chalkbeat obtained did not include early childhood programs, which have seen declines in other communities. And school rosters are not yet final, meaning the overall enrollment figures will likely shift.

“School buildings have been open for just over a month and their registers are not yet finalized or audited, so any declarations about enrollment are premature,” Katie O’Hanlon, an education department spokesperson, wrote in a statement.

Still, the figures provide an early glimpse of enrollment trends in the nation’s largest school system and reveal that thousands of families are making decisions that could affect school budgets this year and reverberate into the future.

Families seek out other options

Molly Watman, a Brooklyn parent of three, pulled her second and fourth grade children from their public school and enrolled them in a nearby Catholic school, which is offering five days a week of in-person schooling. By contrast, their public school, P.S. 130 in Windsor Terrace, was offering the equivalent of five days of in-person instruction every three weeks, with the rest provided online.

Sending her children to school in-person only part of the time felt untenable for Watman, who runs a retail skincare business that she is trying to rebuild after closing down during the height of the pandemic.

“I feel guilty about leaving because I want public schools to be amazing,” Watman said. “But I also want to work. How do you reconcile those things?”

She also decided not to enroll her youngest child in preschool at all since he has trouble keeping a mask on all day, so she and her husband are juggling their schedules to care for him. That felt more doable without also having to manage their other children’s Zoom passwords and remote learning at the same time.

About 1,000 students have switched from public to Catholic schools in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, according to T.J. McCormack, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of New York. He did not say how that compares to previous years.

Many families find remote learning especially challenging with young children, as parents struggle to navigate work responsibilities with the need to supervise remote schooling. Others have opted to take over their children’s schooling entirely.

Bay Ridge dad Simeon Stolzberg decided to formally home-school his third grade son because his elementary school offered little live instruction or feedback on assignments after buildings shut down in the spring. Stolzberg spent his career working in public education, including as a charter school principal, so he felt prepared to teach his son.

“It just didn’t feel like we were getting the face time with a teacher that we expected,” Stolzberg said.

After shelling out about $2,500 on curriculum materials, and setting aside his work as a consultant, he now replicates a school day at home, a setup that his son seems to be enjoying so far. Even though his son is no longer enrolled in his public school, the third grader continues to attend an after-school program where he can interact with his peers.

Stolzberg acknowledged leaving the school system could have budget implications for his son’s elementary school, but he said he doesn’t regret the move.

“If they can’t provide a quality education, then they don’t deserve to have those kids,” he said. “I just feel like the expectations for learning are not very high.”

Some families have quit not only on New York schools, but on the whole city. Michael Kurtz, who had been living in Harlem, opted for big skies over a concrete jungle, moving his family to Bozeman, Montana, where coronavirus rates were once lower than the city’s and where they now can afford Montessori school for their twin 5-year-old children.

“They’re happy, and they’re going to school — they love being able to be around other kids,” he said. “We love New York City, and we’re coming back when we can.”

School budgets could take a hit

Although some students may be getting an equivalent education outside the city’s district schools, there may be many other students who are not engaging with school at all. Ray Domanico, director of education policy for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, said those students could suffer enormous consequences of becoming disconnected from school.

“Some of these kids might just be gone,” said Domanico, who pointed to the possibility of older students dropping out of school entirely. “I’m really worried about that.”

Education officials did not respond to a request for information about where students who left district schools have gone.

The long-term effects of declining enrollment are difficult to predict, experts said. A significant share of state funding, which makes up nearly half of the city’s education department’s budget, takes enrollment into account, and it’s possible the city will see less state funding than it would have otherwise.

But the bigger budget threat at the moment stems from the toll the pandemic is taking on state and local revenue, said Bob Lowry, deputy director for advocacy and communication at the state’s Council of School Superintendents.

“Enrollment losses pale in comparison to the overall fiscal outlook,” he said.

Still, some local officials are pressing the city’s education department to reconsider the standard practice of asking schools to give up funding if their enrollment falls below projections when school registers are finalized in mid-November.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the union that represents school administrators, said union officials have already begun talks with the department to reconsider that approach.

“It would be really unfair for anyone to look at the old funding formula and try to apply it to schools today,” Cannizzaro said. “We’re going to need all the resources you could possibly get your hands on.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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