RPS lists 5.5 percent fewer students since 2019

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/8/2022, 6 p.m.
Enrollment in Richmond Public Schools continues to decline amid population growth in the larger community.

Enrollment in Richmond Public Schools continues to decline amid population growth in the larger community.

In a report to the School Board on Monday, the schools administration reported that fall membership in just the past three years has fallen by 1,221 students or enough students to fill a high school or two elementary schools.

Currently, RPS lists 21,993 students on its rolls from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, or 5.5 percent fewer than the 23,154 students enrolled in September 2019, nearly six months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

That is not good news for Superintendent Jason Kamras, who like RPS leaders before him, has made increasing enrollment a top priority.

RPS Chief of Staff Michelle Hudacsko sought to put an optimistic spin on the figures in presenting the enrollment report to the board, which required the information to determine if the administration is meeting the Dreams for RPS goal to “increase student enrollment — overall and for each subgroup.”

“Our enrollment as of Dec. 1 has nearly matched our 2020 fall membership” of 22,055 students, when the school system went completely virtual due to COVID-19 and enrollment was down, Ms. Hudacsko pointed out.

She also told the board that preschool fall enrollment was up 360 children this year compared with enrollment in fall 2021. The total of 1,341 children enrolled in Head Start and Virginia Pre-school Initiative classes this year represents the best showing since fall 2019 when 1,662 children were enrolled in the two programs, she told the board.

RPS also had increased enrollment by 227 students or 1 percent since September to reach the current 21,993 figure, she said.

However, Ms. Hudacskso did not provide a breakdown of enrollment increases or declines by race, income or other subgroup factors. Third District board member Kenya Gibson described that as a significant flaw given the importance of enrollment in budgeting since it helps determine the amount of revenue the state will provide.

In addition, the presentation appeared to provide better evidence that RPS has little shot of boosting enrollment any time soon.

The 10-year snapshot of enrollment figures Ms. Hudacsko presented shows stable to declining enrollment, with the decline becoming more noticeable since the pandemic hit in March 2020.

At the start of school in fall 2013, or 10 years ago, RPS enrolled 23,755 students, including 1,736 children in pre-K, Ms. Houdacsko noted. Take out the pre-K numbers, and that year, RPS counted 22,019 students in K-12 classes as of Sept. 30, 2013, according to the state Department of Education.

Fast forward to fall 2022, and Ms. Houdacsko reported RPS was serving 20,652 students in K-12 classes, a decline of 1,367 students or 6 percent from 2013.

“We’ve lost a lot of customers,” said 4th District School Board member Jonathan Young.

Enrollment shrinkage is not unusual in public school districts since the pandemic stuck.

State figures show that reported fall enrollment across Virginia this year was still down 38,000 students from the 2019 record of nearly 1.3 million students. More students are being enrolled in private school, are being homeschooled or are taking virtual classes, data indicates, helping to explain the enrollment reduction.

But there is more to the Richmond story.

First, the data that continues to show a major share of Richmond’s students are unable to read, write or do basic math with proficiency is not sending an encouraging signal to parents. Nor do the high level of negative feedback found in teacher surveys RPS has released.

Just as importantly, the total number and percentage of school-age children ages 5 to 19 in Richmond continues to shrink, according to U.S. Census data – reducing the pool of children that could enroll and appearing to refute claims from Mayor Levar M. Stoney and City Council that RPS is headed for a new boom in student numbers.

According to that Census data, in 2000, about 38,000 school-age residents were counted in Richmond, representing nearly 20 percent of the 197,790 people living in the city at the time, or one in five, though only about two-thirds of the children were enrolled in RPS.

By 2010, the Census only counted 34,000 city residents in the 5 to 19 age range, or 17 percent of a growing population of 204,210 residents. Ten years later in 2020, with the city’s population up 9 percent to 226,610, the Census reported fewer than 30,000 residents were ages 5 to 19, about 12 percent of the population, or one in eight.

A key statistic shows that the most significant shrinkage in school age numbers is among those of middle school age.

In addition, RPS has never recovered from the white and Black middle class flight that began in 1970 during the extended fight over ending government-enforced segregation of schools.

That year, RPS’ fall enrollment peaked at 47,988 students as a result of the city’s annexation of part of Chesterfield County in a bid to maintain white control of the government, Census data show.

Ten years later, in 1980, enrollment had plunged to 31,353 students, according to Census data, as families moved their children out of the city to attend schools in the neighboring suburbs.

Enrollment continued a steady decline through 2010, when student numbers began to stabilize at 23,000 to 24,000 students, including 1,600 to 1,700 children attending preschool.

At this point, RPS’ free preschool still is enrolling 400 fewer students than in 2019, even though other data does not show any decline in live births in Richmond nor any real change in the number of preschool children.

The result is an enrollment picture that indicates many parents are finding ways to avoid the city’s public school system, rather than rushing to get their children into classes.