1  Chapter 2: Schools 34 

For the first time in 50 years, DC's population is on the rise, adding over 74,000 residents from 2000 to 2013. And new families in the District are changing the city's schools, driving the first increase in public school enrollment since the 1960s.

Charters, a new kind of public school authorized in DC by Congress, have grown tremendously over the past 18 years. Enrollment in traditional public schools is starting to grow slowly as well, at least in the early grades.

DC's aggressive expansion of prekindergarten and preschool slots has contributed to this turnaround, drawing families into public schools earlier. And with the District's school choice program, students can apply for a seat in any public school – not just the one in their neighborhood – giving parents even more options.

What have these changes meant for families as they decide where to live and send their kids to school? In this chapter, we explore DC's changing public school enrollment trends since 2000, breaking the data down by grade, race, school, and ward.

Rising demand among higher-educated families

So why has enrollment recently gone up? In part, it's because the number of school-age children in DC has increased since 2010, although the story is different in each ward. More school-age children have moved into Ward 3, while many have moved out of Ward 7 and Ward 8, changing the demand for schools in those three areas.

Much of the growth in public school enrollment is also due to a greater number of births in the city, particularly in the Brightwood, Takoma, and NoMa areas.

The map to the right shows the change in births by the mother's education level. In the past, higher-educated families tended to move out of the city as they started families or when their children reached school age. While most births in DC still are to women without college degrees (4,800 in 2003 and 5,800 in 2011), the number of births to college-educated women shot up from 2,400 to 3,200 during that period. Higher-educated parents tend to be more demanding of their children's schools, adding more pressure on the city to improve its schools.

Source: Vital statistics data from the DC Department of Health, Center for Policy, Planning and Epidemiology tabulated by NeighborhoodInfo DC.
Notes: Dots are randomly assigned within census tracts and do not represent actual addresses. Areas with fewer than five births are excluded from this analysis.

Public school enrollment on the rise in early grades

Washington, DC, is a leader in offering school choice through publicly funded charter schools, open enrollment to out-of-boundary schools, and a limited number of private-school vouchers. The charter sector, which has greater independence and flexibility than traditional public schools, started with 2 DC schools in 1997; by 2012, it had expanded to 60 schools on 106 campuses in every ward except Ward 3.

Supporters of greater school choice say it gives families better access to high-quality education, while critics argue it undermines low-performing schools who lose their best students and – because funding is tied to enrollment – lose much-needed resources.

From 2001 to 2013, enrollment in charters took off, jumping from 10,679 to 36,565 students. Out of 82,958 public school students in 2013, 44 percent were in charter schools. Private school enrollment, meanwhile, has declined in DC over the past decade.

Will it last?

For years, the steady drop in DC Public Schools (DCPS) enrollment offset charter school gains, but over the past few years, more young kids have begun attending DCPS schools, pushing total public school enrollment up. The big question is: will those new families stick around through middle school?

Past trends show that many parents start pulling their kids out of DCPS schools between fifth and sixth grade in search of middle schools with better reputations. DCPS has committed to improving its long-struggling middle schools in 2015. But we don't yet know whether that will be enough to keep families in the city and in DCPS schools.

The graph on the right shows grade 2 as an example. Click through for grades K through 4.

School Enrollment by Public and Charter Schools
Source: School year 2001–02 to 2013–14 enrollment data from the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education tabulated by NeighborhoodInfo DC.
Data for all the grades are available here.

Racial diversity of students growing in early grades

While the racial composition of the city has changed dramatically over the past decade, the racial composition of public schools has been slower to shift. In a city where 2 out of 3 school-age children are black, about 8 in 10 charter students and about 7 in 10 DCPS students are black. Compared with charters, DCPS has about three times the share of white students and about twice the share of Asian students.

Looking back at enrollment trends, black students have been shifting from traditional DCPS schools to charters. Looking at charter school kindergarten alone, black student enrollment skyrocketed from 441 students in 2002-03 to 2,109 students in 2011-12. But now, after falling steeply for years, black student enrollment in DCPS schools is starting to inch back up in kindergarten and first grade.

White student enrollment is also rising in DCPS's early grades, while Hispanic student enrollment is increasing in charters.

These data are from the National Center for Education Statistics and may not exactly match enrollment totals from the previous slide. Preschool students are not included.

Charters gain students when DCPS schools close

DCPS's recent uptick in enrollment comes after years of decline. Enrollment fell from 65,748 students in 2001-02 to 44,718 students in 2009-10, before inching up to 46,393 students in 2013-14. Families had been leaving the city for years before the recent turnaround, causing the school-age population to fall dramatically in some neighborhoods. And many families were moving their kids from DCPS schools to charters.

In response, DCPS closed several under-enrolled schools – 28 in 2008 – a move that may have caused more families to transfer to charters. Students from those shuttered schools attended charters at more than twice the rate of students from DCPS schools that didn't close. Many traditional public schools that closed in the eastern half of the city were effectively replaced by charters.

Another 15 DCPS schools closed in 2013 or are slated to close in 2014, some in the city's poorest neighborhoods, which have seen the largest decline in school-age children over the past 15 years.

Nearly half of students go to a school outside their ward

Ward boundaries aren't the same thing as school boundaries, but the fact that nearly half of public school students in most parts of the city go to school outside their ward speaks to how much DC families have embraced school choice.

Kids in wards 2, 4, 6, and 7 have increasingly attended school outside their wards, while kids in wards 3 and 5 have chosen schools in their home wards. Looking at wards 4, 7, and 8 – where most of the city's children live – we can see that, over time, fewer kids have decided to go to school in their home ward.

The map on the right shows where kids in each ward went to school in 2012. Select a ward, and the lines that branch out represent students attending school in another ward. The greater the number of students, the thicker the line. The box on the far right lists the top three wards where students from the selected ward attended school.

While some families are voting with their feet by seeking out high-quality schools or schools with special programs in other wards, the fact that students leave their ward to attend school doesn't necessarily mean their neighborhood schools are bad.

In Ward 2, for example, only 34 percent of children attended school in their ward in 2012, down from 56 percent in 2003. However, Ward 2 has only two high schools, both of which are specialized, application-only schools; this helps explain why so many Ward 2 residents go to schools in other wards. And some of the best schools in the city are in Ward 2, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education's academic growth score.

Although there's some evidence that charters tend to improve students' test scores more than the nearest DCPS option, charters are not universally better. DCPS and charters count great schools and troubled schools among their ranks. For example, the two best high schools in the city, as measured by their students' academic growth, are Thurgood Marshall Academy (a charter located east of the Anacostia River) and DCPS's McKinley Technology High School in Eckington.

Source: School year 2000–01 and 2010–11 enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics and decennial census data tabulated by NeighborhoodInfo DC.

Zooming in: Capitol Hill

As in DC as a whole, Capitol Hill's DCPS schools lost students until a recent reversal in the early grades. Meanwhile, enrollment in the neighborhood's two charter schools has increased slightly.

With early grades driving the change in enrollment trends, we took a closer look at elementary schools in Capitol Hill. Out-of-boundary students attend Capitol Hill schools, so enrollment is greater than the neighborhood's school-age population. But we do find that the enrollment changes in Capitol Hill's four DCPS elementary schools strongly mirror the changes in the neighborhood's racial makeup.

Promising trends

What's next for the District's schools? In September, the mayor is slated to redraw school boundaries – for the first time since 1968 – to balance overcrowded and underenrolled schools while maintaining diversity and access. Also, DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has made improving DCPS middle schools a top priority for the 2015–16 budget.

Charters will continue to expand, with new schools already in the works. But DCPS and the charters are starting to work together more closely, with a common application and lottery system, charters opening up in DCPS school buildings, and some discussion of creating feeder patterns that include charters and DCPS schools.

Families staying in the city and choosing public schools is a real turnaround for DC. Whether this trend can be sustained – or even accelerated – will shape the city's future growth and vitality.

Want more? Dig deeper with analyses of school quality, private school enrollment trends, and more on Urban Institute's blog.

Sources and Credits

Check out our data.

Lead researchers: Austin Nichols and Graham MacDonald

Writer: Serena Lei

Graphic designer and web developer: Daniel Wolfe

Photographer: Matthew Johnson

Research assistants: Simone Zhang and Brianna Losoya

Advisers: Margery Austin Turner, David Connell, and Megan Gallagher

Production assistant: Lionel Foster

Series founder and executive producer: Peter Tatian

Copyright © May 2014. Urban Institute.
The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.