New York City schools Chancellor David Banks wants to win students back.
The nation’s largest school district has hemorrhaged students since the start of the pandemic, with enrollment down about 11% to 813,000 students in grades K-12 since then.
Earlier this week, Banks even tweeted: “Increasing enrollment and boosting opportunity for all of our students is our North Star.”
But such an effort might not be so simple, according to a new analysis by The Associated Press, Stanford University’s Big Local News project, and Stanford education professor Thomas Dee.
Across 21 states, about 230,000 of the students who left the public school rolls from 2019 to 2021 cannot be explained by rising private school or homeschool enrollment or population changes, according to the analysis. A quarter of those children — roughly 60,000 — were in New York.
These students could have fallen off school rosters for various reasons, Dee noted, such as being homeschooled without registering with the state or skipping kindergarten. Other students might have disengaged during remote learning or amid mental health struggles.
But there could be other factors that complicate the chancellor’s goals of rebuilding enrollment. Besides a declining birth rate, immigration to New York City has slowed, and families are leaving New York for places like New Jersey and Florida — often in search of cheaper housing. Together, demographic change could account for at least 40% of New York state’s public school enrollment decline, according to the analysis.
“There’s growing evidence for how much domestic migration happened during the pandemic,” Dee said. That likely reflects “underlying structural factors,” he said, “such as the enduring nature of work-from-home arrangements that have allowed people to relocate, as well as the push-pressure from things like rising housing costs.”
He added, “On some level, that reduction in public school enrollment wasn’t just a flight for public schools. It was a flight from these communities.”
Enrollment losses mount in NYC
New York City school enrollment has been declining every year since 2016, due in part to declining birth rates.
Between the 2018-19 and the 2019-20 school years, for example, the city saw enrollment fall by 5,000 students. But the decline has accelerated. Three years later, there are 99,000 fewer kids in the city’s district schools, even as additional classrooms for 3-year-olds have been added to the system, according to preliminary education department enrollment data from October.
Where did they go? The picture is not entirely clear. During this time, the number of homeschooled students in New York state has gone up, though it still represents comparatively few children. The number of private school students statewide, however, dropped.
At the same time, the school-age population statewide fell by more than 60,000 children, according to census estimates.
After accounting for the non-public school increase and the population loss, that leaves just over 59,000 students whose exit from the state’s public schools isn’t explained. At least in theory, those students are missing.
But the census estimates used for the analysis have shortcomings, especially when it comes to counting children. The New York state census estimates, in particular, have been known to be off-base compared to the official 10-year estimates. Dee’s analysis notes that the enrollment data and census data are collected over different time periods, which could understate the role of population change.
Demographic experts warned against using a specific number for the state’s students missing from school rosters.
“The population estimates may not be the best basis for comparison in this case,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Center for Urban Research. “You may be able to generally determine the direction of the gap,” he added, but cautioned against “calculating seemingly precise population counts representing the ‘gap.’”
Because of these limitations, Dee ran a similar analysis for pre-pandemic years in New York, which found a much smaller number of unaccounted-for students, pointing to something “out of the ordinary” during the pandemic, he said.
“Over the pandemic, we’ve seen this historically unprecedented exodus from public schools,” Dee said.
City officials said they have accounted for students who left the system, sharing a breakdown earlier this school year detailing the numbers of children who went to different parts of the state, the country, or left the U.S., as well as those who dropped out or transferred to charter or private schools.
“Like districts and schools across the county, our enrollment has been impacted by fluctuations resulting from the pandemic as well as long-term trends in birth rates,” Deputy Chancellor Dan Weisberg previously said in a statement.
The enrollment drop has real world consequences for schools. As students leave the system, the city is bracing for a dramatically smaller budget once COVID relief dollars dry up since schools funds are based on enrollment.
Grappling with students who left, and who are frequently absent
Banks, in prepared remarks for Wednesday’s Albany budget hearing, acknowledged that families left New York City public schools for various reasons, and he showed optimism for winning some back.
“The answer to declining enrollment is clear: we have to give our students and families the opportunities and experiences they want in the classroom,” he said, “and we must do a better job of showing them how our schools are giving students the skills and knowledge that will drive success in their lives after school.”
He added: “My administration is focused on rebuilding trust with our families and bringing families back to our schools.”
To that end, the city continues to open new schools. Two that include remote learning opened this year, along with a school focused on robotics. A school focused on design and social justice is expected to open next year. But it also remains to be seen whether the city will soon propose a rash of school closures or mergers. There are a couple of proposed mergers on upcoming agendas for the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.
David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, cautioned about using the big-picture “rough” data to make “finely tuned” policy decisions that affect individual students.
“It doesn’t get to the granular level of individual kids’ needs,” he said. “We know they’re not missing in a real sense. They’re just not on anyone’s radar. It’s the radar screens’ fault, not the kids’ fault.”
He compared the issue to the debate around learning loss, saying it’s “valid and important” to research the phenomenon, but that there are also so many variables and unknowns that are difficult to parse out.
“I think it’s much less important for the macro than the micro: For a given kid who’s not in school, it’s much more important,” he said.
Bloomfield remained more concerned about the larger number of New York City students who are chronically absent and might be enrolled but “alienated” from their schools. More than 30% of students this year are on track to have missed more than 18 days, or about a month, of school, city officials have said.
“The other piece is the in-school situation,” Bloomfield said, “The kids who can be found but are not being served.”
Correction: Due to an update to one state’s enrollment figures, this story has been corrected to change the estimated number of missing students in all states from 240,000 to 230,000.
This article is based on data collected by The Associated Press and Stanford University’s Big Local News project. Data was compiled by Sharon Lurye of the AP, Thomas Dee of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, and Justin Mayo of Big Local News.
Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org.