This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Between this school year and last, K-12 enrollment in the Philadelphia School District fell from roughly 132,000 students to 128,000.
District officials could not provide statistics for students in its alternative schools. In past years, the District educated roughly 4,000 students in these schools.
Enrollment in the city’s brick-and-mortar charter schools grew from roughly 60,500 to 62,500.
About 7,000 Philadelphia children now attend one of the state’s cyber charters.
Over 10 years, District enrollment has declined by roughly 60,000 students, while the charter sector, including cybers, has grown by roughly 47,000.
"It speaks loudly to the choices that are available within the city of Philadelphia. The School District of Philadelphia itself has created many of these choices when it [authorized] charter schools and Renaissance charter schools," said District spokesman Fernando Gallard.
Roughly 13,000 students who are counted in this year’s charter enrollment number attend Renaissance schools – where the District turned over control of the school to a charter operator in hopes of gaining rapidly better academic outcomes.
Gallard said the overall trend, though, has officials concerned.
"We want to be competitive. We want to be able to provide what parents are looking for. Whenever we see students moving away from our schools, we are definitely concerned," he said. "And that’s why we are creating new choices, and that’s why we are redesigning our schools."
The School District opened three new non-selective admission high schools in North Philadelphia this year.
It also debuted a school redesign initiative that asked school and community stakeholders to submit proposals for bettering their neighborhood schools. The four schools recently selected will receive a modicum of funding to help advance those plans.
Two more of its neighborhood elementary schools are in the first year of internal turnaround, in which principals were given autonomy to, among other things, replace half of their teaching staffs with other interested members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Last spring, the District held votes among parents on two low-performing neighborhood elementary schools’ possible conversions to Renaissance charters. In both cases, after aggressive campaigns from existing school faculty and prospective charter operators, parents overwhelmingly voted to keep their schools within District control.
Education advocates attribute the enrollment decline, in part, to the deplorable funding conditions that have made for regular negative headlines in recent years.
Charters as population preservers?
To Mark Gleason, the numbers indicate that charter schools have helped the city not only maintain, but boost its overall population.
Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, a nonprofit that awards grants to District, charter and private schools in the city, argues that the large population shift from District schools to charter schools over the last decade has helped Philadelphia avoid the fate of other mid-Atlantic cities where charter growth has been comparatively slow.
He specifically cited census data from Pittsburgh and Baltimore showing losses of 20 and 11 percent, respectively, of school-aged populations over the last decade.
Philadelphia lost 4 percent in that time.