It’s only a few weeks until students head back to school. In Boston, if this year is like last year, and like many others before that, there will be fewer of them in classrooms this fall.
Boston has been booming economically, a fact reflected in big population growth in recent decades. The city now claims more than 675,000 residents, according to the 2020 Census, an increase of more than 100,000 from 1980, when Boston’s post-World War II population bottomed out at 563,000. But that population surge has been accompanied by another trendline going the opposite direction: A steep decline in the population of school-age children in the city. In just the two-decade period from 2000 to 2020, Boston’s population of school-aged kids aged 5 to 17 fell by about 10,000 – going from 80,000 to about 70,000.
It’s a troubling trend, says Will Austin, founder and CEO of the Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit working to improve quality in Boston schools. “You can define families in many different ways, but the reality is that kids do make neighborhoods,” Austin said on this week’s episode of The Codcast.
Austin, 43, grew up in Dorchester and is raising his three school-aged children with his wife in Roslindale. Boston neighborhoods are far different from those of his youth. When he was growing up, Austin said, there were 18 school-age kids on his street, all within three years of age. There was a kind of “community in that space” that is increasingly hard to find in many Boston neighborhoods today.
There are lots of factors at play, said Austin, but chief among them are the soaring cost of housing in the city and the complicated student assignment process and uneven quality of schools in the district system.
Add in declining birth rates and smaller household sizes, and it’s led to a dramatic enrollment decline in the Boston Public Schools – from about 63,000 students in 1994 to about 48,000 today.
While school enrollment has been falling in many cities across the country, it’s not taking place everywhere. In fact, as Austin said, the decrease in school-aged kids in Boston is almost certainly directly connected to enrollment increases seen in some other districts, particularly those with large Black and low-income populations with more affordable housing. The population of school-aged children has increased in recent years in Stoughton, Randolph, and Chelsea, he said. Meanwhile, Boston has 16,000 fewer Black students in the public schools than it did 20 years ago.
Some of that dropoff is attributable to the growth of charter schools and popularity of the Metco program, but that doesn’t explain all of the change.
With fewer housing options for middle-income families, Boston is increasingly becoming a city of haves and have-nots who rely on housing assistance of some kind, with childless households accounting for much of the population growth. We are already the fifth-most-childless major city in the country, Austin wrote in a recent essay in the Boston Globe, and we could threaten No. 1 San Francisco for the dubious distinction of being the most kid-free major American city if the trend isn’t halted and reversed.
One positive note, he said, has been at least a recognition of the crisis that the city is hemorrhaging families with children. “I would say that at least we have seen in the last year an acknowledgement of the problem,” he said. His organization has done analyses of the falling population of school-aged kids and voiced concerns for several years “and largely met with deaf ears.” City officials kept saying “the families will come back, it’s a blip, you know, those types of things,” said Austin.
An aggressive housing production agenda is surely part of the answer, Austin said. But it has to be housing geared toward families, with home ownership help from city programs and other sources. “Every time I see a development going up that has a [large] share of one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms, you’re saying, well, that’s not family housing, that’s not gonna solve the problem,” he said.
Austin said the city also has to focus on the uneven quality of schools for families to choose from, and the byzantine student assignment process that leaves many exasperated families looking for other school options, including packing up and moving to another community. Austin has advocated a streamlined “unified enrollment” system that would let families apply for seats at district and charter schools through a single process.
Even if there is progress in reversing the trend, Austin said, Boston is facing difficult choices to consolidate schools. “The short-term consequences are pretty clear,” he said. “Less kids creates budget issues.”
“I think the core piece of this is that we want our kids to grow up in an area where they can have everything they need in terms of material and shelter and all the basics – Maslow’s hierarchy – but they also have the ability to develop relationships and build them,” Austin said. “And we’ve kind of slept walked over the last two decades here in Boston, and have not really supported that and have kind of chased other forms of economic activity in city building. I’m hopeful with this new administration and with the stage that we’re in now in this country, that there can be a focus on creating policies that will drive community. In a lot of ways, kids are often at the center of that.”
Sitting on report: Boston Public Schools released the first half of a report on the Mission Hill K-8 Pilot School in Jamaica Plain, which led to its closure. But the school system is balking at releasing the second half, citing attorney-client privilege. Read more.
Education sector missing: Sara Ross and Jonathan Klein of UndauntedK12 say schools, which have a massive carbon footprint, are missing from the state’s climate plan. Read more.
Life sciences: Kendalle Burlin O’Connell of MassBIO and Sandhya Iyer of Lexington team up to explain the benefits for communities of being BioReady. Read more.
Synergy: Antonio Viva of Artisan’s Asylum and Morgan Pierson of Berkeley Investments are finding a synergy between artists, innovators, and developers. Read more.
FROM AROUND THE WEB
As attorney general, Maura Healey has been part of nearly 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration – and prevailed in about three-quarters of them. (Boston Globe)
Sen. Diana DiZoglio calls on the Senate to return to session to finish dealing with the economic development and tax relief bill. (Eagle-Tribune)
A Globe editorial encourages the Legislature to pass a law banning deceptive advertising by pregnancy crisis centers. CommonWealth took a closer look recently at the clinics, which are run by anti-abortion activists.
Massachusetts has a number of weird, archaic laws that are still on the books. (MassLive)
Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia starts naming and shaming landlords who allow garbage to get out of hand on their properties. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)
Sen. Ed Markey leads a congressional delegation to Taiwan, 12 days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip led to threats from China. (Associated Press)
Trump partisans have attempted to breach voting machine security in Michigan and several other states in the wake of the 2020 election as part of an effort to prove vote fraud. (Washington Post)
The Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative is proposing a $20 million soundstage on the grounds of Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox. (Berkshire Eagle)
The union that represents workers at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is proposing a one-day strike on Friday to draw attention to what it says is the refusal of the museum to negotiate a contract. (Berkshire Eagle)
Neighborhood leaders and hospital officials are sounding alarms over the fact that substitute bus service during the looming Orange Line shutdown does not include stops at Chinatown or Tufts Medical Center. (Boston Herald)
A daily commuter bus that takes passengers from Andover, Lawrence, and Methuen to Boston is scheduled to end due to low ridership. (Eagle-Tribune)
The Eagle-Tribune runs a series of stories about the history and future of Lawrence’s canals. The latest is about North Canal, a canal that is in disrepair and at risk of failure, but which no one has found money to repair.
The ongoing severe drought and the recent heat wave are seriously hurting farms, including those growing Christmas trees. (MassLive)
What will it mean for the state’s energy future to have 10 communities shun new fossil fuel hookups as part of the new climate legislation signed last week. (Boston Globe)
Author Salman Rushdie remains in critical condition after being attacked by a 24-year-old man who stabbed him 10 times. (NPR)
Clark University professor Robert Deam Tobin, known for his work on LGBT studies and European cultural studies, dies at 60. (Telegram & Gazette)