Indianapolis Public Schools is struggling to compete with charter, private and township schools in the battle to attract students. For the third year in a row, the city’s largest district is bracing for yet another decline in enrollment.
Despite efforts to attract students through popular school choice programs, initiatives that give principals more freedom to experiment, and a campaign to relaunch some failing traditional schools as “innovation” partnerships, IPS is expecting to see its enrollment drop by 968 students next year.
That loss, announced during a budget presentation for the IPS board Wednesday night, could cost the cash-strapped district hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid because state funds are based on enrollment.
“If we continue to drop down 1,000 students a year, somebody is not going to have a job,” said IPS board member Sam Odle.
Declining enrollment is a long-term problem for IPS. This year, the district has 29,377 students, including students enrolled in charter schools that joined the IPS innovation network—a program in which schools run by outside organizations receive some services from the district and are counted as district schools on state accountability measures.
That’s about 22 percent fewer children than the district educated 10 years ago when IPS had 37,890 students, according to Indiana Department of Education data. In 2013 and 2014, enrollment slightly increased, but it has returned to a slow downward trend more recently.
The district had been the state's largest for years but now slight trails Fort Wayne Community Schools, which reported 29,483 enrolled students in the 2015-16 year.
IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee attributed the projected decline next year to changing demographics.
“When we look at birth rates and the number of families in the core of the city, the challenge is we don’t see as many 3-year-olds, and 4-year-olds, and 5-year-olds as we used to,” said Ferebee, who called on the city to push for more affordable housing.
But whatever is causing shrinking enrollment, some board members believe that to arrest the trend, the district must offer attractive programs to families that can choose other options.
IPS magnet schools, such as the Centers for Inquiry, typically have waiting lists of students who are not admitted, and the district should continue expanding those programs, said board member Kelly Bentley.
“To the extent that we can meet demand so that we’re not losing families—I mean that’s over $5,000 a student that walks out the door when we’re not able to meet that demand,” Bentley said.
The district is aiming to attract new families and retain students through high school by increasing magnet schools, Ferebee said. The district moved its International Baccalaureate magnet high school to a more central location this fall, and is launching a fourth CFI magnet at School 70. It also is moving and expanding the arts magnet.
Officials did not put a pricetag on the enrollment decline but the district expects to spend $3 million less next year as compared to the current school year. The district’s total operating budget is expected to shrink to $235 million.