Applications to enroll in NOLA Public Schools district charter schools — including new students and those seeking transfers — dropped by nearly 30 percent between the 2019-2020 school year and the 2021-2022 school year, according to a report presented to the Orleans Public School Board on Thursday. While some of that can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the upcoming school year has seen a slight recovery, officials and experts believe the overall trend will be downward in the coming years, following a slow-down in the city’s population growth over the past decade, and a more recent decline in the past few years.
School board members heard the report on declining enrollment at their Thursday night meeting, part of a process NOLA Public Schools officials have called “right-sizing” the district, which could include more closures and consolidations of city charter schools.
New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that works to improve education in the city, prepared the report. Chief of Policy and Portfolio Holly Reid delivered it to the board.
Among the key findings were that one-third of the city’s 49 elementary schools accounted for nearly half the demand for kindergarten seats. And just two of the district’s 27 high schools account for nearly half the demand for ninth-grade seats.
The other schools, Reid said, may struggle to fill their rosters, which can make running a school more financially difficult because funding is allotted on a per-pupil basis.
“We know that underfilled schools make instruction and operations more expensive per pupil,” Reid said.
“This is not unique to the district,” board president Olin Parker said, referencing a recent New York Times article.
Four NOLA Public Schools district schools are closing at the conclusion of this school year. Two did not win new charter contracts due to academic and other reasons. And another two charters voluntarily closed after the district announced its right-sizing work due to low enrollment.
While the report did not make specific recommendations about which schools should close or consolidate, it offered in-depth analysis on enrollment trends across the city, school facility conditions and whether the condition of a school affected demand for enrollment.
Ten percent of seats are already going unfilled in schools across the district. And Reid noted a declining birthrate and drop in students entering kindergarten in recent years, likely to be significant contributors to further enrollment decline at all grade levels in the near future.
“We expect these trends to continue and affect high schools in the coming years,” she said.
The report measured kindergarten and ninth grade application numbers. The city schools largely consist of K-8 elementary schools and high schools. Those “entry” years offer key insights on new enrollment.
Half of total kindergarten demand is for 13 of the city’s 49 elementary schools, the report concluded. At the high school level, two high schools accounted for nearly half of ninth grade applicants’ first request.
NSNO used enrollment data from the district’s centralized enrollment system NOLA-PS Common Application Process (NCAP), formerly known as OneApp.
Demand for new placements — new entries and transfers — in the city’s centralized admissions system decreased from 13,002 for the 2019-2020 school year to 9,201 for the current school year, a nearly 30 percent drop. The pandemic could have affected those numbers, Reid said. New placement requests increased slightly for the most recent round of applications — for the 2022-23 school year — to 9,609. That could be in part because three of the city’s highest performing schools joined the common enrollment system this year and because four schools are closing and those students must select a new school.
The 13 lowest demand elementary schools “carry the greatest future risk of declining enrollment as birth rates continue to fall,” the report concluded. Again, Reid said, that could make balancing a school budget difficult, with extracurricular and other auxiliary activities the first things to be cut.
The report also analyzed facilities by their condition by calculating the cost of capital repairs a school needed over the next ten years and dividing schools into four categories based on those costs. About 19,000 students attend schools in what NSNO deemed “Tier 1” facilities, which require the least amount of capital work, while more than 9,000 attend a “Tier 4” facility which requires the most amount of work.
“We didn’t find a strong relationship between (enrollment) demand and facility conditions,” Reid said.
Reid said the group had four recommendations for the district moving forward, which included more publicly available data and analysis on an annual basis and working to determine how to measure and define “school quality.” School quality, she said, was key to understanding enrollment demand.
Asked how NSNO conducted its work, Reid said the group modeled its report after analyses conducted by similarly sized cities that have seen enrollment declines in recent years.
The report was met with a bit of criticism from some board members.
Board member Ethan Ashley said the group should have consulted board members and taken community input before drafting a report that could influence the redesign of the city’s schools.
He also asked that any future work include data disaggregated by race, gender and other subgroups.
Reid said NSNO did not have access to that level of personalized student data but that the district itself would.
Other board members asked that academic data be worked into such an analysis.