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Many Students Displaced From Closed D.C. Schools Not Returning To System

Over 50 percent of students have yet to re-enroll

Many students whose schools were closed in June have not yet re-enrolled in the traditional public school system.
Karen Apricot: http://www.flickr.com/photos/karenapricot/292761884/
Many students whose schools were closed in June have not yet re-enrolled in the traditional public school system.

When D.C. officials announced earlier this year that they would close 15 public schools over the next two years, they promised to work aggressively to ensure that students returned to the school system.

But with one week to go until classes resume, only half the number of students expected to re-enroll in traditional public have actually done so, fueling fears that they may be defecting to the growing charter school system.

According to figures provided by school officials, 44 percent of students at 10 of the 13 schools that closed in June have re-enrolled in a public school. That’s just over half of the 80 percent goal set by D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson when she finalized the school closures earlier this year.

Re-enrollment rates run the gamut from 31 percent of students who attended Marshall Elementary School in Ward 5 to 72 percent of those that were at Shaw Middle School in Ward 1.

According to the figures, re-enrollment of students from closed schools exceeds 50 percent in only three cases, and in only one closed school have more than half of students re-enroll in their designated receiving school. Over 2,000 students were affected by this year’s school closures.

School officials say that parents sometimes wait to enroll children until closer to the first day of school, a problem that is evident as children get older. According to figures provided by DCPS in late July, enrollment in high schools averaged 55 percent, while elementary and middle school enrollment stood at 81 and 67 percent, respectively.

But critics of the school closures say that the low re-enrollment figures follow the pattern set in 2008, when D.C. closed 23 public schools. According to Mary Levy, an education policy and budget analyst, the city’s public school system lost 3,000 of the 5,200 students that attended those schools that year, and overall enrollment in the system dropped by more than 4,000 students.

Part of that has to do with the challenges of mixing schools from different neighborhoods, says Levy.

“They’re very apprehensive, and so you close their neighborhood school that’s familiar to them, you send them to another school, certainly when the kids are older they’re worried about turf problems. It’s a hard job integrating schools with each other. The people who have had kids at schools that have been consolidated say that it takes about three years,” she says.

Additionally, during the school closure process, some parents complained that their designated receiving school posted lower test scores than the school that was closing. During a June D.C. Council hearing, Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said that some parents weren’t convinced by the options they had: “It’s hard for me to market something that can’t be marketed,” he said.

Henderson announced a plan to close 20 schools in late 2012, narrowing the list to 15 schools after a round of town halls across the city. She said she sought to close schools that were under-enrolled, and promised that more adequately enrolled receiving schools would have more resources for teaching and programming. In June, Henderson said that all elementary students at receiving schools would receive 45 minutes of daily art, music, physical education, and language instruction, something they didn’t get before.

In seeking to ease the transition for students from closing schools, Henderson promised an “aggressive, integrated marketing and family recruitment campaign at each receiving school in coordination with the closing school leaders” with the aim of keeping 80 percent of the students affected by the school closures—1,762 students, all told. Some of that marketing seems to have worked—in June, only 13 percent of students from closed schools had re-enrolled in DCPS.

But with the school system only halfway to Henderson's goal, some worry that parents may be opting for the growing charter sector—which now enrolls 43 percent of all public school students in the city—and that any enrollment decreases in D.C. public schools could complicate school-by-school budgeting and staffing. Enrollment at DCPS has stabilized over the last two years, while charter school enrollment has grown by over 10 percent each year over that period. (The D.C. Public Charter School Board does not keep a keep a centralized tally of ongoing enrollment, though it announced last week that seats were still available at various schools.)

For Council member David Catania (I-At Large), who chairs the Council’s education committee, the uncertainty in enrollment—especially of students from schools that closed—could have impacts stretching over the coming school years.

“We've staffed up at Hendley for Ferebee-Hope students,” he says, referring to two elementary schools in Ward 8, the latter of which was closed and will feed into the former. “But if those students go someplace else, to a charter school or some other school, Hendley is now staffed up for those students, and if those students don't appear, next year Hendley's budget will be cut and their staff will be cut, and that can affect programming, the numbers of art teachers, for instance.”

According to school figures, that may come to pass: only 20 percent of students from Ferebee-Hope have enrolled in Hendley and 13 percent have opted for other schools, leaving just under 70 percent that have not yet enrolled in DCPS at all.

The fate of the displaced students stands in contrast to overall enrollment in D.C. public schools for the coming year: as of early August, 78 percent of the expected 46,060 students had enrolled, three percent ahead of the same point last year. School officials have reason to be optimistic, as test scores over the 2012-2013 school year jumped by the biggest margins since 2008.

Still, Catania says that the process of enrolling students is overly cumbersome and should be changed. Parents have to re-enroll their child every year, even if they stay at the same school, and have to show various documents to prove D.C. residency. That means that some students don’t enroll until school starts, which Catania says is unacceptable.

Catania says he is concerned with enrollment levels, and will hold hearings in the fall to see what DCPS could do better. “We are where we are, which is… we really don't have a true picture of where these where these children will appear and whether we will have the resources to accommodate them,” he says.

Update, 5:30 p.m.: Henderson wasn't able to comment by press time, but she sent in the following statement after publication: “Overall, enrollment at DCPS is up this year compared with this time last year. Traditionally, a flurry of enrollment happens right as school is about to begin and during the first week. We are working hard to enroll students from consolidating schools and while the numbers are lower now, we are confident that come the start of the school year, they will grow.”

Disclosure: The reporter's wife teaches at a charter school.

Re-enrollment of students from closed DCPS schools.

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