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Boston’s under-18 population declines

Declining child population could pose challenges for city’s school system

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Boston’s under-18 population declines
Boston, like most other U.S. cities, is seeing a decline in its school-aged population. PHOTO: BOSTON MAYOR’S OFFICE

In the pre-pandemic years, competition for the 800 seventh-grade seats in Boston’s three exam schools was strong, with 2,833 students applying.

This year, just 1,283 students applied for the seventh-grade seats, according to a report released by Boston Public Schools.

The drop in applicants is just one indicator of a larger dynamic affecting schools in Boston and in cities throughout Massachusetts — the number of students is declining.

In Boston, a city dogged by some of the highest rents and housing costs in the nation, the last 20 years have seen a precipitous drop in the number of families with children, exacerbated in the last few years by pandemic disruptions that led to an increase in remote learning and more stringent immigration controls.

Between the year 2000 and 2017, Boston’s school-aged population dropped from 84,513 to 75,394, according to an analysis of census information undertaken by Boston Indicators. That decline came even as the city’s overall population surged from 589,141 to 695,926.

The declining number of children in the city could have profound implications for Boston Public Schools, which has committed to an ambitious plan for school-building renovations and construction even as the student population is dropping.

The decline in student population has happened particularly dramatically with middle-income families. The Boston Indicators analysis shows a net loss of about 6,000 moderate-income families since 1980, while the number of high-income families has increased by more than 1,000.

Although the administration of former Mayor Martin Walsh undertook an ambitious push to relieve pressure on the city’s housing supply through new construction, the proliferation of luxury one- and two-bedroom units in neighborhoods throughout the city has largely excluded families with children and families who earn more than the cutoff for subsidized housing but less than the estimated income of $181,000 that Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found is needed to afford a home in the Greater Boston area.

“The city is being built for higher-income people without kids,” said former School Committee member Alexandra Oliver-Dávila.

Oliver-Dávila, who heads the youth services nonprofit Sociedad Latina, said the students who come through her programs generally leave the city once they’ve graduated high school, unable to afford rents and housing costs in Boston.

“They can’t afford to live here,” she said.

Even as Boston saw a decline in school-age children, there were increases in neighboring lower-income cities such as Chelsea (23%) and Everett (36%).

Despite the city’s sky-high rents — topped only by New York and San Francisco — the decline in school-age children is not unique to Boston. Declining birthrates across the country – including in Massachusetts — have led to declines in school population. Still, Boston is near the head of the pack, with Seattle and San Francisco the only two major cities with lower birthrates than Boston’s 10.8% per 1,000 residents.

In Boston, the decline is most apparent among Black and white families, with Latinos showing moderate increases in the below-18 population in recent years. But because Latino population growth in Boston has been fueled largely by immigration, recent curbs to immigration through policies pushed through by the administration of former President Donald Trump may have slowed it.

Also exacerbating the falling numbers in Boston, as well as in districts across the state, has been an increase in home schooling that took off during the pandemic.

Glenn Koocher, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said that while some students are returning to school districts in the state, not all have.

“They’re not coming back as fast as we expected,” he said. “But they are coming back.”

Boston neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of children of color have seen some of the greatest numerical declines. In Mattapan, where in the year 2000 children represented 22% of the population, that percentage dropped by 21%. In Dorchester, the percentage of children dropped by 25% in the same time period. East Boston, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and other gentrifying neighborhoods saw similar drops in the school-age population.

In raw numbers, Dorchester, which has a majority people-of-color population and is the city’s most populous neighborhood, saw the greatest numerical decline, shedding 20,166 children under the age of 18 between 2000 and 2017.

Mayor Michelle Wu introduced an ambitious school building and renovation program — the Green New Deal for BPS — aimed at constructing new school buildings and making renovations to existing buildings. The declining enrollment in Boston, however, has some wondering whether school closures will be part of the plan.

“I do think it’s going to be harder to maintain some of our smaller schools,” said Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang. “If the district wants to make sure there’s a quality guarantee for every school — a minimum amount of staffing to make sure all students have access to the same classes and opportunities — they will be looking for ways to do that more efficiently by consolidating or merging more schools.”

School closures will likely present a conundrum for the district. Most of the schools BPS officials have closed in recent years — such as the Mattahunt, the Jackson/Mann and the West Roxbury Educational Complex — have served predominantly low-income, majority Black and Latino student bodies.

While BPS officials have cited dangerous conditions in school buildings, with longstanding deferred maintenance issues as a justification for such closings, some schools, such as Boston Arts Academy and the Eliot School in the North End, received new buildings.

Oliver-Dávila, who while on the School Committee voted to close schools, said the decision is always difficult.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “You’re breaking up a community. It’s a very hard thing to do.”

Tang said BPS must be transparent with parents about the decision to close any schools.

It’s extremely important that they share with school communities what the benefits of any disruption will be,” she said. “The process is really important.”

While Boston rents continue to rise, it seems certain the student population will continue to decline, and School Committee members will again face difficult decisions around school closures.

Oliver-Dávila says the discussion should go beyond the confines of the School Committee chamber in the Bolling Building.

“There has to be a wider discussion of how this city can remain affordable to families,” she said. “The city has to come up with strategies to keep people in this city. It’s unfair to put this all on the School Committee.”

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