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St. Louis educators see silver lining in new enrollment numbers but still expect decline

Students at Beginning Steps Daycare line up for outdoor play time on Monday, April 10, 2023, at the childcare center in Penrose.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Students at Beginning Steps Daycare line up for outdoor play in April at the child care center in the Penrose neighborhood.

The overall story of St. Louis city’s public school enrollment is one of decline. That has been true since at least the early 1990s, when more than 43,000 students attended St. Louis Public Schools. Now, according to new state data, just under 28,000 students attend either SLPS or charter schools.

“This has been a discussion going on for decades in the city of St. Louis, as you look at the population decline and what the size of the district used to be,” said Matt Davis, vice president of the Board of Education. “We still have too many schools to meet the maximum efficiency to provide the best resources.”

City schools are affected by broader demographic changes that are also true to some extent across the country. The birthrate has declined since the 2008 recession in both the city and surrounding counties.

“There are just fewer students who were born,” said Ness Sándoval, professor of demography and sociology at St. Louis University. “And so these numbers are not surprising. We're going to see even bigger drops starting in 2026, and they'll continue to get worse each and every year.”

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Those forces are also affecting suburban school districts and private schools, including Catholic schools facing potential closures under the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ All Things New restructuring plan. But there are issues that are specific to the city; Sándoval points out that St. Louis’ population loss is being driven by the loss of families with children.

“Thousands of people are moving into the city, but they don't have children,” Sándoval said.

In the new state data, some see a silver lining; compared to last year, enrollment is relatively flat for both traditional public schools and charter schools. Davis said SLPS officials had been hopeful this would be true since the first day of school, when more students showed up than in recent years.

“While enrollment continues to be lower than it historically was, we are happy that we've seen some stabilization after the pandemic,” Davis said. “During the pandemic, there were just an amount of kids that didn't come back to school right away, particularly in the younger grades."

Charter schools are also taking note of the flat numbers, said Noah Devine, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association. But he said that while enrollment numbers are important for planning and budgeting, they shouldn’t be the only measure of success.

“At the end of the day, it actually misses the mark on the most important question, which is, do we feel like our kids are getting a good education?” Devine said.

Many tied to education are grappling with how to provide the best education in a city that is shrinking. Politicians need to start seeing school enrollment and population decline as intertwined, said Dorothy Rohde-Collins, a former SLPS board member and current St. Louis University doctoral student.

“If we want to have a city with a stable and growing population, we need to have a place for children to live and grow up,” Rohde-Collins said. “And I would argue that we are not doing that right now.”

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Rohde-Collins analyzed enrollment and school closures in the city in a recent report. She tracked a “highly unstable” system that has seen more than 100 schools close and 85 open in the past 32 years.

“Absolutely school closures are a policy decision that we'll be faced with again as a city, I would say very soon,” she said. “And so how do we look at it in a way that doesn't perpetuate harm?”

St. Louis Public Schools board members and other stakeholders have been considering that question with the Citywide Plan, which they hope will provide a blueprint for school “right-sizing.” The district’s board has also called for a moratorium on new schools opening in the city, though only the state has the power to prevent new schools from opening.

“We're also looking at where demographically do we need the schools to be?” SLPS board member Davis said. “And what do our schools need to look like to be prepared for the future? We're not having that conversation with every charter school in the city, mainly because you have organizations like the Opportunity Trust, who have pledged to open 16 new charter schools. That's insane. There's no demand for that.”

The Opportunity Trust provides funding to expand charter schools in the St. Louis area. It recently received a $35.5 million federal grant to support the opening of more schools. The organization's CEO and Founder Eric Scroggins said the St. Louis education system is going to have to “transform pretty substantially” and acknowledges that there are too many schools in the city. But he thinks opening new schools is necessary to improve the system.

“What we know is that one of the best ways to drive improvement and performance and innovation is to design and launch new schools,” Scroggins said.

The Opportunity Trust is a financial supporter of St. Louis Public Radio. STLPR is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations by members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in STLPR's journalism.

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.