Kindergarten classrooms are getting emptier in Orleans Parish.

In the latest hint of how demographics are shifting in New Orleans, new data from the Orleans Parish School Board show about 3,550 students entered kindergarten in New Orleans public schools in August, down 15 percent since 2014.

The percentage of African-American students also fell, declining to 73 percent from 83 percent five years ago. 

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While declines over the past five years appear to have stabilized, with enrollment posting a small increase in 2018, the lower number of attendees in recent years will ripple through the district as students progress through school.

Data also show that enrollment of African-American students continues to fall while more white and Hispanic students enter public-school kindergarten. 

The percentage of Asian children and those who are identified as multiracial has remained steady.

The data on kindergartners, which serve as a guidepost for school officials when developing oversight plans for the city's network of charter schools, suggest officials will likely need to prepare for a smaller population of students wending their way through the school system in coming years.

When coupled with data that also show African-American enrollment declines in local private schools, the new figures underscore how the shifts in the racial makeup of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina are reshaping the profile of the city's institutions over time.

"What we’re seeing is the demographics of our city change," said Thomas Lambert, the school district's director of innovation and planning, during a meeting this month. "We now have access to student level data, so we’ve started being able to dig in and understand trends."

The demographic changes are becoming clearer thanks to the unification of the city's schools last year, which brought all public schools and their data under the oversight of the OPSB. Until this year, enrollment data were spread across the city's archipelago of charter operators and public schools overseen by both the state-run Recovery School District and the OPSB, making it harder to analyze broader trends. 

For charter operators, slipping enrollment for kindergartners can mean stiffer competition for students in future years and strained finances for schools that fail to attract enough students.

About a third of a charter school's funding is provided via the state through a per-pupil allotment, based on enrollment as counted in October. That money flows through the School Board and is given out to schools every month, with adjustments based on whether schools have students in special education, English as a second language or other more costly offerings.

When enrollment falls, schools can fail.

Crescent Leadership Academy, an alternative school for middle and elementary students, cited budgetary problems stemming from low enrollment as a reason for shuttering in October.

'Drastic decline'

In a recent meeting before School Board members, Lambert said data show the "drastic decline" in enrollment is mostly due to a drop-off in the number of African-American students.

Researchers and public-policy groups point to several reasons for the drop.

Analyzing census data, Allison Plyer, chief demographer of the Data Center, found that there were 15,766 black children under the age of 5 in the city in 2012, compared with 14,814 under the age of 5 in 2017, a 6 percent drop.

Plyer said the reason for the decline is likely that there are fewer black women ages 20 to 24 in New Orleans now. Historically, black women in the city, on average, have had their first baby when they are 23 or 24.

Going back further, Plyer said that population group would have been between ages 8 and 12 when Hurricane Katrina hit, and many families with children didn’t return to New Orleans after the storm.

“That is a likely, significant explanation of why there might be fewer black kindergartners in New Orleans,” Plyer said.

In 2015, the School Board hired a demographer through GCR and Associates, who found that locally, birth rates were also increasing at slower rates or were negligible from year to year and that population growth in New Orleans was “significantly” decelerating.

Enrollment bubble

Although fewer students are entering the system in kindergarten, overall enrollment for all grades is currently about 48,660 students, marking a 6.7 percent increase from the 2014-15 school year, when enrollment was 45,608, according to past articles and OPSB data.

That increase is largely because of high school enrollment. Every year, about 15 percent more students enter public school for ninth grade, Lambert said, which causes a bump in enrollment following middle school.

The OPSB’s data also show a "bubble in enrollment" from 2009 and 2010 that will force officials to create more high school seats in the future.

Currently, there are about 330 open ninth-grade seats in New Orleans, according to OPSB officials. Officials estimate that an additional 800 students could enroll in ninth grade by 2022.

If that happens, the district will need to add about 500 seats to its current portfolio.

The need marks a significant shift from immediately post-Katrina, when enrollment plummeted, and officials decided that New Orleans didn't need as many high schools as it once had.

Some room will be added from seats planned as part of the school system's facilities master plan, which aims to expand existing schools and build several new ones over the next several years.

About 280 seats will be added next school year when ninth-grade seats return to McDonogh 35, a direct-run school, after it becomes part of the InspireNOLA Charter School network. The Living School, a project-based high school, is also opening in New Orleans East next fall, officials said.

Bricolage, another charter school, is also expected to open a ninth grade in the future, but OPSB officials said they would be actively looking for charter operators to open new high schools.

"If you get much beyond the next couple of years, there won’t be enough time to really get schools into the pipeline to position us well to be able to support those students," Lambert said.


Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.