By Sam P.K. Collins
As District public and public charter schools continue to prepare for new and returning students this upcoming academic year, a recently released study has raised some concerns about trends in citywide enrollment and what that means for school budgets and allocation of resources.
The study, conducted by the DC Policy Center, highlighted declining birth rates, the movement of families of child-bearing age out of the District, and, to a lesser degree, COVID-19 anxiety among the causes of declining pre-kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment in District public and public charter schools.
Chelsea Coffin, DC Policy Center’s director of education policy initiative, said Wards 7 and 8 experienced a higher-than-average decline in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in the years preceding the pandemic. She also noted a significant decline among Black families, whom she said experienced declining birth rates as well.
Even with previous focus groups showing COVID-19 as a main driver post-2020, Coffin noted that the release of vaccines for younger people hasn’t induced an increase in enrollment among that age group. Instead, enrollment has remained steady among middle and high school students aging through the K-12 education system.
“We don’t have any policy recommendations [but there is] a strong focus on recruiting students back to the early grades,” Coffin said. “We’re not sure which ward will have lower enrollment in years. Wards 7 and 8 have seen a larger-than-average decline in kindergarten,” Coffin added. “This is due to the fact that pre-kindergarten is not compulsory.”
Young people in the District can enroll in pre-kindergarten by the age of three. Those who had done so during the pandemic were born in 2017 at the point of the District’s birth decline. At the height of the pandemic, as early childcare centers counted among the first educational facilities to open, early childcare workers organized around adequate pay, especially since fears about COVID depleted enrollment at that time.
In the months before the end of last school year, some District public and public charter schools reached out to parents as part of an enrollment drive. Toward the end of July, DCPS released a pre-K Family Toolkit with information and activities to prepare students for the first day of pre-kindergarten on September 1. Families also attended workshops that took place throughout the first week of August.
Parents who still have not enrolled their child can submit a post-lottery application. DC Public Schools didn’t respond to a July 21 inquiry about its systemwide recruitment strategies and the effects that low enrollment could have on academic programming.
As a mother of a rising pre-K4 student, Faith Gibson Hubbard continues to call for the greater inclusion of early childcare centers in conversations about District education. She said all District public and public charter schools must partner with early childcare centers to make better educational connections for children and ensure their access to a quality education, no matter where they live in the District.
An equally important matter for Gibson Hubbard concerns how best to inform and encourage families to enroll their young ones in school from a young age. Doing so, she said, requires people to meet people in the community.
The mother of two and first executive director of Thrive by Five, a program that connects families to maternal health and early childcare support, credited her son’s preschool teachers with laying the foundation for his elementary education. She said they helped him learn in ways that she and her husband wouldn’t have been able to do on their own.
“It’s important that we read off the same sheet of music to talk about the benefits of childcare and pre-K3,” said Gibson Hubbard, a Ward 5 resident and onetime D.C. Council candidate. “There are benefits for parents going back into the workforce. It helps their child be prepared for years of school. We can do a better job of creating a different narrative of why it’s important to send our children to school.”
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