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Boston Public Schools enrollment has dropped 14% over last five years

Boston Herald logo Boston Herald 8/8/2022 Marie Szaniszlo, Boston Herald
BOSTON MA- June 30: New Boston Public School Superintendent Mary Skipper looks over at Mayor Michelle Wu at a press conference on the steps of TechBoston Academy on June 30, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. © Matt Stone/Boston Herald/Matt Stone BOSTON MA- June 30: New Boston Public School Superintendent Mary Skipper looks over at Mayor Michelle Wu at a press conference on the steps of TechBoston Academy on June 30, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Boston Public Schools’ enrollment has plunged 14% over the last five years, a trend experts variously attribute to students opting out, moving out or dropping out.

The number has steadily declined, from 52,665 in 2018 to 46,169 this year, with dropout rates of 5.4% in 2018 to 2% in 2021, the most recent year for which the district and the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had a statistic.

“I think declining enrollment is something we’re seeing in many of the urban centers, where we’re seeing fewer school-aged children,” said incoming Superintendent Mary Skipper. “We’re also working with the city … to build our schools out there so that families are thrilled and want to come to our schools and send their students.

“And so it’s twofold,” Skipper added. “One is dealing with what is a natural decline … and at the same time, making sure the quality of our education is superior.”

As public school enrollment declines, the number of small schools is growing in many American cities. More than one in five New York City elementary schools had fewer than 300 students last school year. In Chicago, that figure has grown to nearly one in three. And in Boston, it’s approaching one in two, according to a Chalkbeat/AP analysis.

“I think inevitably it’s connected to funding, facilities, hiring — just general allocation of resources — and it doesn’t seem like it’s being addressed,” said Vernee Wilkinson, director of the family advisory board of SchoolFacts Boston, a group working to improve education in the city. “Families in some cases lose patience or lose hope or lose faith and move out.”

Wilkinson also cited the lack of stability in the district’s leadership as each new mayor in recent years has appointed a new superintendent. Over the last 10 years, BPS has had seven school chiefs, including three interims. And since 2018 alone, Boston’s search for the right school boss has cost city taxpayers $1.4 million in salaries, buyouts and search firm fees, according to a Herald payroll analysis.

Others blame not the change in mayors but BPS itself for the exodus.

In June, the school district narrowly avoided the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education declaring it “underperforming,” which would have allowed the state to appoint an independent auditor to oversee the district.

State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said a review of BPS had found it showed “little to no progress in addressing the needs of its students with disabilities, English learners and students in the district’s lowest-performing schools, resulting in continued poor outcomes for tens of thousands of students.”

“The district has been mired in chronic underperformance,” said Jamie Gass, director of education policy and research at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank. “Parents are voting with their feet because they know BPS remains a massive, largely unaccountable, employment system run on behalf of the adults.”

But Gabrielle Farrell, a district spokeswoman, said that over the past five years, there’s been no evidence that more people are leaving BPS.

“We’ve seen a drop of students entering the system,” Farrell said, “but we haven’t seen growth in the number of students leaving the system.”

Travis Marshall, a member of Quality Education for Every Student, a local nonprofit, thinks that enrollment is steadily decreasing because there are fewer school-age children in Boston due to the scarcity of affordable housing.

“Children are part of what makes a city vibrant. But housing is such a crisis here that it’s almost impossible to live in Boston, especially if you have a family,” said Marshall, who has two children at the Phineas Bates Elementary School in Roslindale. “People want to live here, but Boston is becoming a city of the very rich and the very poor.”

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