Educators should count on data

Today I read this headline in the Detroit Free Press: “School districts study enrollment drops.” The article talked about how school officials in Southfield and Romulus have created committees to study their shrinking student populations and to consider the ramifications. Will they have to close schools? Eliminate programs? Re-purpose their buildings? How can they cut staff while still guaranteeing good student outcomes?

If you focused only on daily news reports, you’d think that Detroit and other urban districts were the only ones losing students—and the valuable state grant that comes with each pupil. We here at the Detroit-Area Community Information System have done an analysis of public school student enrollment across 83 districts in the tri-county area. We know that districts like Detroit, Southfield and Romulus aren’t the only districts in trouble…and the trouble didn’t just sneak up on us.

While we can blame the current recession for some of this loss, the demographic changes started occurring long before 2001. Our population—particularly younger families—has been moving from our urban core to the suburban townships, while births have been dropping across the region since 1990. Detroit births dropped by nearly half between 1990 and 2007.  For many southeastern Oakland County communities, only about one in five households have school-aged children.

More recently, 46 districts experienced decreased enrollment since 2005. A total of 53,053 students have left public schools in the tri-county area (2/3 from Detroit) in the past three years.  There were actually 36 districts that gained population (one held constant), but they accounted for an increase of just 11,170 students. *

Charter schools were the winners in each county, adding 743 students in Macomb, 1,214 in Oakland and 7,618 in Wayne.  The net for our area is a loss of 32,308 students in the last three years!

It’s great that districts are now trying to be pro-active as they face serious declines in their student populations. But this is also a teachable moment for us statisticians. It’s time we made data more available to school officials, city planners and policy makers. It may feel like our public schools are now being hit by a tsunami, but it’s really a tidal wave that has been a decade in the making.

* Our data came from the Center for Educational Performance and Information