Steep enrollment drops in the Indianapolis Public Schools have put the district close to losing its status as the state's largest, with the latest figures surprising district officials.
Preliminary enrollment counts taken Friday show the Indianapolis district has about 950 fewer students than last year, putting it at 32,336 students. That is within 800 of the 31,549 counted by the Fort Wayne Community Schools, the second largest school district in Indiana.
This year's decline in the Indianapolis district continues a long slide as more families move to the suburbs or send their children to charter schools. As recently as 2002, it had about 8,600 more students than the Fort Wayne schools.
The enrollment drop was more than what Indianapolis schools officials had anticipated.
"I'm really kind of upset," School Board President Elizabeth Gore told The Indianapolis Star. "I was hopeful we'd be at the same level of last year or above."
The enrollment count is a key factor used by the Indiana Department of Education to determining how much money each district will get for its general fund.
The Fort Wayne district's preliminary enrollment count found just 20 fewer students than last year and within about 50 students of what it had five years ago. The state's third largest district, the Evansville-Vanderburgh schools, had about 22,500 student last year.
Fort Wayne district spokeswoman Krista Stockman said its teachers and administrators had worked hard at staying connected with parents.
"We think that has prevented our schools from losing students to the charter schools at the same rate that they have in Indianapolis," she told The Associated Press. "Part of that is that people see our schools as viable places to be."
Three charter schools sponsored by Ball State University have opened in Fort Wayne, while about 20 are open in Indianapolis, where state law allows the mayor to authorize the schools. Most of those charter schools are located within the Indianapolis Public Schools district boundaries.
Charter schools are alternative public schools that have more curriculum freedom than traditional schools.
The latest decline in the Indianapolis enrollment has some community leaders wondering about the long-term effects of more funding losses.
"Eventually, that's the wrong direction to be going in when you're trying to improve academic performance in an urban system," said Joseph Slash, president of the Indianapolis Urban League. "That's why the method of funding has a lot to be desired in terms of how inequitable it is."