And after years of declining enrollments, the number of children in Baltimore's public schools has risen in the past three years to 83,800 in the 2010-2011 school year, according to figures from the school system.

Andrés Alonso, chief executive of Baltimore public schools, said the enrollment jump in 2008 shocked planners, who he said had expected city schools to continue shedding students at the rate of thousands per year as the system had done for decades. Alonso attributed the jump not to the recession but to three years of much-publicized reforms and a better perception of city schools.

Baltimore is not the only city reaping the benefits of decreased migration. In Philadelphia, officials are putting together a comprehensive plan through 2035 that assumes an increase in population, said Jametta Johnson, a city planner.

"Cities have this inflow and outflow of people, but we're not seeing as much outflow because people are sort of staying put," Johnson said.

Recent data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey showed that the percentage of Baltimore residents over age 25 who are college graduates rose from less than 20 percent of the population in 2000 to nearly 25 percent between 2005 and 2009, the period measured by the survey.That represents a steeper increase than the nation saw in the same period.

"Baltimore, compared to some of the other geographic areas that our students typically go to, has been more stable economically," said Mark Presnell, director of the career center at the Johns Hopkins University. He noted that graduates in the area have several large, steady employers to choose from, including major hospitals and the federal government.

Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the Baltimore metro area's unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in November, 2 points lower than the national rate.

While more young graduates have chosen to stay, a second group — homeowners now struggling with mortgages taken out during the housing boom — has also remained in the city longer than they expected.

Shanna Russ, 29, is one of those homeowners. She and her husband bought a house in Pigtown in 2007, only to see it lose tens of thousands of dollars in value in the housing bust. When they bought the house, Russ and her husband worked in Annapolis, but he now makes a longer commute to Washington each day.

Not wanting to send her children to Baltimore's public schools and daunted by lengthy waiting lists at existing charter schools, Russ and other parents banded together to start their own charter school, set to open next fall.

Though her family enjoys some of the perks of living in an urban area and she has made friends through the charter school effort, Russ, now a stay-at-home mother, said her family would move closer to her husband's workplace if they could sell their house without a loss. Friends in Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Alexandria, Va., enjoy better schools and safer neighborhoods, she said.

The real task for Baltimore, said Sandra J. Newman, a professor of urban policy at Hopkins, will be to keep residents like Russ' family once the economy picks up and they have other options.

"This is a chance for the city to sort of show its stuff," said Frey of the Brookings Institution. "I do think that this is an opportunity for cities like Baltimore."

Continued job growth in the city, as well as further reductions in the crime rate, will help persuade people to stay, Stosur said. In 2010, the city saw across-the-board declines in crime, including a 6 percent drop in the number of homicides.

Judy O'Brien, president of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, said her group's annual survey of members reveals that education is one of the biggest reasons that families choose to leave Baltimore. City schools often suffer from an unfairly negative reputation, she said, but she has been pleased with her daughter's education at the public Federal Hill Preparatory School.

Asked where she would send BellaGrace if her family remains in the city, Annibal replied, "We'd have to do private or charter schools."

Alonso, for his part, recognizes that the school system must progress further to attract families like the Annibals.

"Perceptions about school climate and safety have an enormous hold on many parents," Alonso wrote in an e-mail. "We will probably have to continue improving for a while longer before we improve sufficiently to attract all parents, and old assumptions go away."

But for Russ and her family, just one of the households the city will have to find a way to court, the decision to stay in Baltimore long term could come down to their dealings with the city bureaucracy. A house next to theirs has been foreclosed upon, and another was abandoned after renovations were under way, she said. Eventually, several homeless people established a camp in the backyard.

After months of complaints to city housing officials, Russ turned to her councilman, William H. Cole, to finally have the camp removed. She said she's also been slapped with fines when overgrown weeds from her neighbor's property extend into her yard.

"I just feel like I can't win," she said. "They must be trying to drive me out of here because they make it very difficult to live."

jtorbati@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jtorbati