Baltimore teachers launch door-to-door campaign to stem tide of enrollment decline

Faced with a shrinking student population and declining state funding, Baltimore teachers are launching a citywide enrollment drive.

The teachers union has enlisted its members in a five-week campaign to knock on hundreds of doors and try to convince parents to send their children to public schools in the city.

Shrinking enrollment is a costly problem in a district in which education funding is based largely on student population. Principals will receive about $5,400 per student to run their schools next year.

The recruiting effort, coupled with a blitz of radio commercials, is aimed at stanching three years of enrollment declines. The system lost more than 1,300 students between 2016 and 2017. District officials expect to lose about 1,000 more students next school year — unless they take steps to reverse the departures.

"Student enrollment was one of the pillars that caused our most recent budget crises, and we here at the teachers union knew we had to do something," said Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

Union leaders, City Council members and school administrators launched the campaign Monday afternoon from Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School, a North Baltimore school that has enjoyed unusual growth. The student population increased from 280 to 340 in the last four years.

Organizers had planned to begin knocking on doors Monday, but heavy rain prompted them to postpone canvassing until Tuesday. English said they hope to re-enroll 1,000 students who have left the school system.

The district receives most of its money from the state in a formula tied to enrollment. In the past three years enrollment has decreased from about 85,000 to an estimated 82,350 students, a 3 percent slump.

Students who have left the district in recent years have taken millions of dollars in per-pupil funding with them. In December, city schools chief Sonja Santelises said the declines would cost the district at least $25 million this school year, which ended last week.

"We see this as a major, major campaign in city schools," Santelises told the crowd Monday.

Administrators say hundreds of students are leaving district schools because their families participate in housing relocation programs that sometimes take them out of the city. Others are transferring to Catholic schools under under a new state program that gives students vouchers to attend private schools.

Some parents have moved their families to nearby Baltimore County and enrolled their children at schools there. Others parents simply fail to ensure their children attend school.

"There is a percentage of our youth where we have no idea where they are," Mayor Catherine Pugh said.

A student re-engagement center at school district headquarters focuses on bringing these students back to school. Students and parents can meet with office staff and develop a plan to re-enroll.

About 80 percent of students who come in are re-enrolled, said Alison Perkins-Cohen, the chief of staff for Santelises. Through last month, 570 students had visited the office and 445 were placed in schools.

Now the district has partnered with the teachers union to bring those efforts to students' homes.

"This is the most comprehensive approach that we've taken," Perkins-Cohen said.

She said the district also wants to increase enrollment in pre-kindergarten and build parents' confidence in city schools.

The enrollment decline was among factors that drove a $130 million budget deficit school officials faced earlier this year. State and city legislators directed more money to the district, and more than 100 staff members were laid off.

The Baltimore public school population peaked in 1969 with 193,000 students, but has plunged 60 percent since then. The city suffered a similar drop in residents. Baltimore had around 940,000 people in 1960, but the population has dwindled to less than 615,000 people today.

Jermain Bailey, a math teacher at Success Academy in Northeast Baltimore, was hired to knock on the doors.

"Coming to Baltimore City schools and seeing all the resources they have for these kids is just phenomenal," he said. "I just want to make sure all these kids of Baltimore come and make use of the resources."

The American Federation of Teachers will cover nearly 80 percent of the $200,000 campaign, a union spokesman said. The city and school district will cover the remaining costs.

"It does take a village, and it requires a public system that is responsible for all children — and that is what Baltimore is doing," AFT President Randi Weingarten said.

The radio commercials started Friday on four local stations. The commercials begin: "Let's be real. Baltimore City schools and educators are on the chopping block, and that isn't right."

The teachers are to canvass the neighborhoods around their schools on weeknights from 4 to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Forty people have been hired to recruit students. Recruiters will begin in Pimlico, South Clifton Park, Easterwood and Frankford. They received scripts and participated in training sessions, and they'll get help from community leaders on Saturdays.

"If it's successful, it might be something that we plan to do next year," English said.

Coldstream Park Elementary Middle School secretary Tanya Lassiter, one of the recruiters, said one of the greatest challenges is parents who let their children stay home.

"Some parents don't send their children to school, especially if they're older children," she said. "Once they get to middle school, some of the kids don't come back to school. I see this moreso with our kids that have learning disabilities. We try to chase them down and find them but we can't."

Lassiter usually spends her summer break fishing for spot, croaker and perch near the Eastern Shore. She doesn't mind that the recruiting campaign will keep her off the water.

"I get to go fishing for kids now," she said.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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