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The changing face of Indianapolis reflected by school enrollment data

Over the last nine years, Marion County school districts — with the exception of IPS — have enrolled more students, and as they have, schools have grown more diverse and more of the children they serve are coming from poor families.

This is the time of year when school districts report enrollment to the state, and it’s a big deal. Schools are funded on a per-student basis that is determined by two student counts in September and February. The September count was taken on Friday.

Students who don’t get counted can cost schools much-needed dollars. And in a budget cycle where some Marion County schools saw funding declines, every kid, well, counts.

And with every count, the subtle changes that are reshaping Indianapolis schools become a bit more pronounced.

Data on school district enrollment is available from the Indiana Department of Education going back to the 2005-06 school year. Looking at the changes over that time, it’s clear that enrollment is growing in public schools in Marion County, and much of that growth can be connected to more black and Hispanic students.

And many of the same districts that are gaining more black and Hispanic students also are losing white students.

All districts except IPS saw big gains in students coming from families poor enough to qualify for free lunches, meaning a family of four can’t earn more than $31,535 annually. While free meals generally increased, reduced-price meals decreased, possibly signifying an increase in poverty county-wide. (To qualify for reduced-price meal, the income limit for a family of four is $44,863 this year.) Franklin Township alone saw a 115 percent increase in free meals.

As districts grow and become more diverse, that can bring challenges for staffing and building maintenance.

Just two districts in the county lost students. Lawrence Township was down by 1,040 students at the end of the 2015 school year compared to 2006, but district spokeswoman Dana Altemeyer said some of that is being offset by out-of-district students who are enrolling and expressing interest in Lawrence schools. As of Sept. 11, the district is up 484 kids this school year.

There was a much bigger decline for IPS. About 8,000 students left between 2006 and 2015, a 21 percent drop.

Yet that trend isn’t necessarily new. Over the past few decades, it has become fairly common across the country for families to leave city centers for suburban schools. At more than 30,000 kids, IPS is the largest district in the state and in the county, beating out the next largest county district, Wayne Township, by almost double.

Below, Chalkbeat takes a closer look at a few of the county’s school districts that have seen the biggest changes according to enrollment data from the Indiana Department of Education. (You can also check out our recent profiles of highest- and lowest-scoring IPS and Township schools.)

See this spreadsheet for more detailed data breaking down enrollment by race, ethnicity and free and reduced-price lunch.

Perry Township

One of the largest factors in Perry Township’s student enrollment growth is the ever-increasing number of refugees, many from Asia, choosing to settle in the area.

“The last several years we’ve been monitoring enrollment very close,” Superintendent Tom Little told Chalkbeat in March. “And we’ve been seeing a real growth at the elementary level, especially at the Kindergarten level. When they come to Perry Township, our children tend to stay.”

Over nine years, the district saw a 1,115-student spike overall, with an increase of 2,376 Asian students and 1,153 Hispanic students. The biggest bumps in the number of kids took place in 2009, 2013 and 2014, leaving the district with 14,955 students at the end of 2015.

Perry Township also saw a spike in the number of students receiving free lunches, up to 8,477 in 2015 from 4,837 in 2006. Part of that growth could be connected to the district’s refugee population, which tends to include families who are low-income and, many times, still learning English.

Little said he was excited about the district’s growth, something he attributes to the township’s affordable housing, cultural diversity and support from the business community — the district has passed four referendums for additional school funding in the past four years.

District officials said earlier this year before its most recent referendum passed that it needed the extra dollars for new and better buildings rather than relying on portable classroom trailers that aren’t the best learning environments or safest option for students.

“We feel Perry Township has truly become a premiere school district in the state of Indiana,” Little said last week. “And we’re poised for further growth.”

Wayne Township

The second-largest district in the county, Wayne Township has seen slower, but fairly steady, growth since 2006, expanding by 1,130 students by the end of last year.

There were small hills and valleys along the way, but district spokeswoman Mary Lang said it’s been consistent, and the district is in a good place to keep growing building-wise. Last week, enrollment hovered around 16,000 students, Lang said, up a few hundred from 15,758 at the end of 2015.

“We do have some portables at some schools, but we don’t at most,” Lang said. “And we are currently very much able to serve the students we have … so we are not looking at any construction projects at this point or anything like that.”

Lang said Ben Davis University High School’s early college program, which helps students earn an associate’s degree while still in high school, the availability of preschool and virtual learning options have all been draws the the district. As district attendance boundaries have been eliminated over time, Lang said it’s increasingly important to make sure Wayne is communicating with its community about what is has to offer.

“Families have the ability to choose more now than they ever have before, and we are very keenly aware of that,” Lang said. “We know it’s important for us to let people within our district know the great things that are happening so they can continue to feel good about sending their students here.”

Washington Township

After 12 years of stagnant growth, district Superintendent Nikki Woodson said, Washington Township’s enrollment picked up in earnest in 2010. From 2006 to 2015, the district grew by more than 10 percent — 1,073 students — to 11,348 in 2015.

It might not seem like much, but Woodson said it’s certainly significant for the district, which has also seen tremendous growth in poverty in the same time period. The number of children who come from families poor enough to qualify for free lunch jumped by 86 percent. Districtwide, the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch is now 60 percent, up from 40 percent in 2006.

Historically, the large district has been a desirable place to live, with a mix of families of varying income levels.

But that many new students also puts stress on the district’s buildings, Woodson said. In 2007-08, the Washington Township School Board voted to close two elementary schools, just before enrollment spiked. At the time, census forecasting and talks with experts in demographics didn’t reveal any upcoming enrollment bumps.

“It is a huge impact to us because we had closed two elementary schools,” she said. “So had we been a fleet of nine elementary schools, things would feel a lot different with that additional numbers of students.”

Woodson said current 10-year enrollment predictions have the district growing by another 600 students by 2025.

Last year, Washington Township became the first district in Indiana, and just the sixth worldwide, to offer all-International Baccalaureate classes to all students in all grade levels. IB is a challenging, college-prep curriculum that encourages students to be globally-minded and use questions and critical-thinking to guide their learning.

Woodson said that IB, especially at the middle school level, has been attractive to families. The district has more than 600 students from outside the district’s boundaries. However, those extra students are not main reason for the overcrowded buildings, she said.

“Even when we remove all 600 from our fleet of schools, it does not subside overcrowding that exists,” Woodson said. “The nonresidents are not the reason for overcrowding because they are sprinkled amongst 13 different grade levels and 11 buildings, and it’s controlled enrollment.”

For now, Washington Township administrators are planning as best they can. A community conversation is likely the next step. Woodson said the district isn’t necessarily ready to re-open the closed schools, as they are in poor condition that would require a large sum to renovate, but they’ll take the lead from their residents.

“We’re thrilled with the growth,” she said. “It’s a challenge that we’re ready to tackle, but it’s not a challenge that we wish we didn’t have.”

Other trends

Changes in the county’s demographics in terms of ethnicity, race and poverty stem from long-term trends in the city and newer shifts in education policy, such as the state’s voucher program.

Each district except Beech Grove and Franklin Township, the county’s wealthiest, lost anywhere from 400 to more than 3,000 white students, while numbers of minority students, especially black and Hispanic students, increased.

Amos Brown, host of WTLC’s Afternoons with Amos radio show, has been studying Indianapolis’ demographic shifts since the state began releasing data in 1986. He said the changes to districts’ makeups of black and white students isn’t necessarily new. In 1986, Brown said, there were more than 81,000 white students in Marion County districts. At the end of the 2014-15 school year, that number was down to about 48,000.

“No one will admit that publicly, as the township school districts became more racially diverse — and this occurs in other cities — whites flee,” Brown said. “That’s been going on like forever. So all of a sudden a school or school district gets more minority students, and that tends to accelerate flight.”

Brown said the availability of publicly funded vouchers also might be a factor in districts losing white students. Last year, more wealthy, suburban families used the vouchers to pay for private school tuition.

As white families moved into the suburbs, Brown said, minority families moved into Marion County, and they tended to be younger families with more children. Districts like Washington Township are seeing rapidly growing enrollment in younger grades, he said. Brown is serving on a volunteer committee in the district that is assessing building needs.

Although its total enrollment has been fairly flat since 2006, Warren Township gained the largest number of black students by adding 1,129, or a 23.5 percent increase. Beech Grove schools saw the highest percent increase of black students at 74.3 percent, although the number grew by just 81 students in nine years to 190 at the end of last year in the small district.

In IPS, Hispanic enrollment is up by 61.1 percent over the nine years, while enrollment of white and black students dropped by about 37 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

“IPS is getting hit by a number of factors,” Brown said. “I think the perceptions and realities of violence, school quality — all of that plays into it.”

Wayne Township has become more diverse, adding about 2,500 Hispanic students since 2006, bringing them up to 3,844 — a 184 percent increase. Lang said the district has a large number of English-language learners, mostly Spanish-speakers, but still with about 70 different languages spoken in the district.

“We’ve created an atmosphere where people come into the district even if English is not their first language,” Lang said. “We are very attentive to their needs and helping them learn English and really get going into the school system.”

Beech Grove and Franklin also saw proportionally large increases to their enrollment at 26 and 11 percent. The growth seems to be spread across ethnic groups, with slight upticks for Hispanic students in Franklin and white students in Beech Grove.

Brown said that while he doesn’t expect to see any major changes to IPS’ enrollment when new enrollment data is released later this year, the district’s reunion with Arlington High School, back under its management after state takeover, and a deal with Charter Schools USA to co-manage Emma Donnan Middle School could add to the district’s student count.

“It’s a combination to me of vouchers, a combination of continued flight to the suburbs, changing family structure,” Brown said. “The county has changed. I think the nature of households has changed, and the minority growth is strong, and I think that’s reflected in schools.”

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