Enrollment in Baltimore City schools has fallen to its lowest number in a decade, with 1,700 fewer students this year.
The drop comes as Baltimore’s overall population also continues to decline. Still, a shrinking student body is an acute problem in a district that funds its schools based on student enrollment. The school system loses thousands in state funding for each student who leaves the district.
City schools CEO Sonja Santelises describes the slump as “part of the ecology of the city.” Baltimore has hemorrhaged residents for years, with the population nearing the same size it was a century ago.
“Families moving in and out — that impacts us,” Santelises said. “We are hunkering down. … I’m hoping we’re going to see an upward tick.”
Baltimore city schools enrollment
Student enrollment in Baltimore city schools has declined for the 2017-2018 school year, down 2 percent from the previous year. Enrollment has fluctuated over the years, but this year’s numbers are the lowest in the last decade.
|Year||Number of students enrolled|
|Current school year||80,592|
Source: Maryland State Department of Education
At the same time, enrollment in surrounding counties has swelled. More than 1,000 students joined the Baltimore County school system this year, bringing total enrollment there up to about 113,280.
“Families are voting with their feet and they’re saying they want to be in Baltimore County,” said economist Anirban Basu, of the Sage Policy Group.
The city’s loss comes as it struggles with rising crime and a near-historic homicide rate. And last year — around the time families were making decisions about the next school year — Santelises revealed that the district faced a $130 million shortfall, shaking some parents’ confidence in the system. The deficit was, itself, driven in part by years of declining enrollment.
State and city lawmakers later pledged money to help bridge the gap. Santelises said she doesn’t anticipate this year’s drop will create another severe budget crisis, thanks to new legislation that will allow school systems to use a three-year rolling average to count students.
This method is “a fair way to do it,” said Bebe Verdery, director of the ACLU of Maryland’s education reform project, as the “the standing costs that a school system has do not drop proportionately to the loss of students.”
While families are largely the ones leaving the city, Basu said, a stream of young professionals is moving into Baltimore’s new developments. These 20-somethings will soon turn into 30-somethings, scouting for schools for their children.
“As enrollment falls, the schools get weaker,” said Basu, a former city school board member. “We need a situation where the schools are getting stronger so we can hold onto these young people as they turn into families.”
The drop also comes as some families are pulling their children out of public schools entirely. Gov. Larry Hogan launched a program in 2016 to provide thousands of Maryland students from low-income families with taxpayer-funded vouchers they can use to attend private or religious schools. More than 900 Baltimore students — far more than in any other county — were awarded one of these vouchers this school year, according to Oct. 30 state data.
Over the summer, teachers carried out a citywide enrollment drive, knocking on doors wearing shirts that read, "Bringing Baltimore back one child at a time." They spent weeks looking for students who have dropped out and persuading them to give their education another shot.
Baltimore Teachers Union president Marietta English said the drive ended with 329 new students enrolled in pre-K and 17 former drop-outs re-enrolled. She hopes to bring back the program next year.
Santelises launched an enrollment task force in November, aimed at staunching the district’s losses. It brings together representatives from the mayor’s office, Baltimore-based businesses such as Under Armour, and community organizations like Family League. The group will present its recommendations to Santelises before the next school year.
“We’re being proactive,” said school board chairwoman Cheryl Casciani, who is heading the task force. “We’re not just sitting back and counting the kids who are leaving.”
The group is digging into the district’s data to pinpoint areas where students are being lost. There are about 1,200 fewer students enrolled in pre-kindergarden through fifth grade this year; the high school population shrunk by more than 600 students, while middle school saw slight growth. The drop is felt in every school that loses students, as principals build their budgets around getting a base amount of $5,400 per student.
The district operates a student re-engagement center, which targets students who have dropped out or are at high risk of dropping out and aims to put them on the track to graduation.
“We need to do a better job of finding those students and having them come back to an environment that’s supportive of them and makes them want to stay,” said Santelises’ chief of staff Alison Perkins-Cohen. “That’s something we have work to do on.”
The Baltimore public school population peaked in 1969 with 193,000 students, but has diminished by nearly 60 percent since then. The city saw a similar drop in residents. Baltimore was home to around 940,000 people in 1960, but the population has since shrunk to less than 615,000 people, according to the latest census data.
The school district previously faced steep declines in the early 2000s, but stabilized and grew during former CEO Andres Alonso’s tenure.
Alonso’s landmark reforms — revamping how schools are funded, expanding the number of charter schools and broadening school choice to include middle and high school programs — contributed to the enrollment boost, said Basu, who served on the school board under him.
“All of the sudden, a kid in a neighborhood with a struggling school was not condemned to attending that school,” he said. “He had a choice.”
But the progress largely stalled after Alonso’s resigned in 2013. His successor Gregory Thornton saw enrollment once again plummet as a review found that hundreds of nonexistent “ghost students” were mistakenly kept on the rolls. The district's budget was reduced by $30 million, in part because 1,900 pupil slots were no longer funded by taxpayers.
It’s now vital district leadership reverses the trend, Basu said.
“I have faith in Sonja that we’re going to turn this thing around,” he said.