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New Orleans' public schools are facing an enrollment crisis. They aren't alone.

Students play at Akili Academy in the Upper 9th Ward. Nov. 13, 2020.
Aubri Juhasz
Students play at Akili Academy in the Upper 9th Ward on Nov. 13, 2020.

New Orleans Public Schools is facing a looming enrollment crisis, that to some extent is already here, since roughly 20% of district seats are currently unfilled.

Officials discussed the drop in enrollment during Thursday's board meeting, where researchers said population decline, in part due to decreased birth rates, is to blame.

Under-enrollment can wreak havoc on a school system's finances since enrollment determines how much money a school and district receives from the state.

When left unaddressed, schools may fill last-minute funding gaps by cutting staff or eliminating enrichment classes and after-school activities.

In response to preliminary enrollment trends presented in December, the district said it would take steps to reduce empty seats by consolidating and closing schools and not approve new charters that would create additional seats.

Four K-8 schools are set to close at the end of the school year — two voluntarily due to low enrollment and another two due to low performance. But officials said more closures would be necessary, since other schools have already been approved to add more seats for the coming school year.

New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), a local education nonprofit, has been tasked with helping the district respond to enrollment trends and presented the first phase of its research at Thursday’s board meeting.

Brian Eschbacher, a consulting researcher with NSNO, said the trends the district is experiencing are happening across the country, out of its control and unlikely to get better.

Public school enrollment steadily increased after Hurricane Katrina, peaked in 2019 and has been in decline since then. Roughly 44,000 students attend New Orleans public schools, down from 49,000 at its peak.

Provided by New Schools for New Orleans.
Provided by New Schools for New Orleans.

Private schools have seen an even faster decline, while the percentage of New Orleans children who attend public schools is actually on the rise, even if the overall number of school-aged children in New Orleans is dropping.

While COVID depressed enrollment temporarily, Eschbacher said the pandemic alone does not explain the decline. Rather, a relatively straight line can be drawn between enrollment and population trends.

New Orleans has 20% fewer people than it did before Hurricane Katrina, and the proportion of children has also decreased since then. As a result, this year’s kindergarten class is 16% smaller than it was in 2014.

Provided by New Schools for New Orleans.
Provided by New Schools for New Orleans.

“Year by year, as these smaller classes move through grade levels, our public school enrollment will continue to decrease,” NSNO wrote in a recent report.

Eschbacher said he believes housing affordability also plays a role in enrollment trends and cited research from the Data Center, which found wages are not increasing fast enough to cover housing costs.

“For every four children that are born in the city, only three attend kindergarten five years later,” Eschbacher said. “There’s a quarter of children who are either going to private school or essentially exiting the city altogether.”

Provided by New Schools for New Orleans.
Provided by New Schools for New Orleans.

After Eschbacher’s presentation, board members discussed specific demographic changes, including data showing that enrollment declines have been greatest among Black students.

“We’re looking at gentrification on these slides,” board president Olin Parker said. “It’s a very obvious problem of our Black and African American students leaving the system and leaving the city.”

The district’s student body is roughly 74% Black, down from 88% 10 years prior. During that time, the percentage and total number of white students increased. The same was true for Hispanic students, who now make up the district's second largest racial group at 12%.

It's up to the district and board to eliminate surplus seats by closing entire schools, working with programs to reduce capacity or a combination of both.

While the average school is 86% full, empty seats aren't spread equally across the entire district. Some schools have no vacancies, while others are more than half empty.

Board member Nolan Marshall urged the board not to close schools simply based on enrollment since that could leave some communities without any nearby options.

“If we just look at the number, we could close some schools and further disadvantage those who can least afford that,” he said.

Eschbacher said NSNO plans to provide additional data in the spring related to demographics, enrollment demand and facility capacity.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s audio stories.

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