By Ariama C. Long
In 2020, students left schools nationwide in droves. A project between Stanford University, Big Local News, and the Associated Press worked together to figure out what happened to them. Locally collected data shows that mostly Black and low-income students left the New York City public school system in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic.
The extensive project surveyed state-level data for all public schools, private schools in 35 states, and homeschooling in 33 states from school years 2019 to 2022 in an attempt to find the “missing kids.” It was determined that about a third of the nation’s public school decline was unexplained, meaning students may have skipped kindergarten, went into unregistered homeschooling, are still afraid of COVID-19, are homeless, have left the country, are struggling with mental health issues, were simply absent, or left for the workforce.
The fact that students weren’t adequately tracked or inquired about after the chaos of the pandemic highlighted a systemic problem that also largely became a budgeting problem. Many states fund their schools based on how many students they have. A loss in enrollment meant a loss of money.
The data found that New York State had about 60,182 missing students ages 5 to 17, although the project posits that numbers could be much higher. The numbers get more granular when homing in on New York City, as do the reasons that certain groups of students seemingly fled the school system.
Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative Director Matt Gonzales said that based on numbers his organization crunched, Black students specifically were exiting the school system at the highest rates while wealthy white students are increasing in numbers. This was due to “no doubt, the impacts of gentrification and increasing unaffordability of NYC, as well as the pandemic,” said Gonzales.
The Department of Education (DOE) had preliminary data and enrollment figures for the 2022 to 2023 school year available as of October 31. The final enrollment data will be available in the spring, but as of this February, there was a decrease of 1.8% in grades K to 12 instead of the almost 4% decrease in 2021 to 2022 and the year before. The number of enrolled students currently in the city’s school system is approximately 903,000, according to the DOE.
Coalition for Educational Justice Director Natasha Capers said that every year, there are at least hundreds of students in temporary housing or shelters that schools can’t account for. She said the dilemma of declining birth rates has also affected enrollment rates.
“Every year since 2016, we have seen a decline in district enrollment, but the decline appears to be reducing as we come out of the pandemic and establish efforts to increase enrollment. Over the last 15 years in New York City, we’ve also seen a falling birth rate, which has contributed to a drop in enrollment,” said the DOE.
The DOE said that recent drops in enrollment are driven by both a decline in new admittances and an increase in students who were enrolled but left the system as “discharges.” The number of students who were discharged to school outside of the city “increased dramatically” in 2021 to 2022, most likely as a delayed effect of the pandemic. For the most part, students who left moved to other parts of the state or New Jersey and Connecticut. Those who went south mostly went to Florida.
The DOE concluded that 27.8% of Asian students were more likely to move to Long Island, while 27.9% of Black students were more likely to move down South. White and/or Arabic students were more likely to move internationally. Students in poverty were more likely to move to Pennsylvania and down South, as well.
“There’s a story that people tell when Black and brown kids leave the system that can be very different than the story folks will tell if white kids leave the system,” said Capers. “White students leave and they start their own pods, and that’s seen as a natural evolution of a failing system, versus Black and brown kids leave and go back to their home countries or to the South. In reality, people are just trying to take care of themselves.”
According to Kaliris Y. Salas-Ramirez, a medical lecturer who was appointed by Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine as a member of the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), significant reductions in enrollment can be due to students having caregivers who died during the COVID crisis. She added that in her district in East Harlem, many families of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent sent their kids back to their islands.
“The DOE…use[s] those enrollment projections for schools so they can determine budgets and this year, they were really really off because they were using the last two years of enrollment trends,” said Salas-Ramirez. This “pandemic mindset” approach to budgeting is why advocates were so upset with Mayor Eric Adams’s budget last summer, she said. She said that principals told them that their schools weren’t under-enrolled.
Gonzales noted that Adams’s claim that school budget cuts were necessary as a result of enrollment declines felt “very dubious.” He said that Adams proposed slashing school budgets back in February of 2022, long before he started using the enrollment decline as a talking point.
“We didn’t see the dramatic decrease in enrollment we were expecting and then add on the buses of migrant children that were coming to our schools—about 12,000,” said Salas-Ramirez.
Capers said it’s puzzling that the DOE hasn’t figured out a better way to fully fund schools instead of relying on such a constantly fluctuating formula. The “per pupil capita” model is outdated and “inequitable,” with schools that have overcrowded class sizes and are still lacking in funding, she said.
“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,” said First Deputy Chancellor Dan Weisberg in a statement. “In response, Chancellor Banks and his leadership team are focused on increasing enrollment in our public schools, and these efforts are starting to show signs of progress.”
Weisberg said the DOE has been working on listening to families and school communities to make the enrollment process easier and more transparent. Above all, the DOE is trying to account for the impact on school budgets.
This year, Adams and Banks approved proposed reforms to the Fair Student Funding (FSF) formula that determines how schools get money. The proposals include an additional consideration for students in temporary housing or living in poverty, students with disabilities, English language learners, and asylum-seeking students
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.