Before the pandemic, Principal Laurie Midgette’s Brooklyn charter school maintained a waitlist 300 names deep. But over the past three years, demand has receded, and her school’s enrollment has dropped by 16%.
It’s forced her to dial up recruitment efforts, advertising in movie theaters and on bus stops. With more open seats, the school is in the process of enrolling about 35 asylum-seeking students who recently arrived in New York.
“This is definitely, for us, a new phenomena,” said Midgette, who runs Cultural Arts Academy Charter School in Brownsville, referring to enrollment drops.
For years, New York City’s charter schools have been known for their steady growth and long waitlists. Even as the number of K-12 students in the city’s district schools plunged about 9% since 2019, charter schools grew by 8% over the same period.
But that overall growth obscures an important part of the story: 58% of the city’s charter schools shrank over the past three years, not including schools that opened or closed during that time. (The official enrollment data sometimes groups multiple campuses under the same charter school.) Some of the city’s flagship networks are also struggling to fill all their campuses, including Uncommon Schools and Success Academy, the city’s largest charter operator.
“There’s a misconception that charter schools aren’t getting hurt by enrollment during the pandemic. But we clearly, clearly did—no question,” said Ron Tabano, the principal and CEO of John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy Charter School, which saw its enrollment decline 26% over the past three years. (Tabano said enrollment rebounded somewhat in this year, though official counts are not yet available for the 2022-23 school year.)
The declines on many campuses also may complicate the sector’s push to lift the current state cap on charter schools in New York City, as new schools would compete to attract a shrinking student population.
The reasons for enrollment declines are complex, and there likely is not one cause. Multiple charter leaders said they’ve seen an increase in families leaving the city, a claim consistent with district data that showed a spike in the number of students who left last year. Others pointed to broader demographic trends, including falling birth rates, and even competition from new charters in certain neighborhoods.
Laurie Midgette, the charter school principal, said her staff surveyed the families who left during the pandemic. The same answer came up again and again: The high cost of living, especially rent, “is driving people away,” she said.
Still, the charter sector—which educates about 14% of the city’s public school students—is adding students overall. One source of that growth are grade expansions, such as a K-5 school that launches with kindergarten and adds a new grade each year. Charters that have added grades or opened have seen enrollment increase 37% since 2019, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of state data. About 4 in 10 charter schools expanded or opened over that period.
Among charter schools that are fully built out, however, enrollment has contracted by 4% over the same time frame. (Unlike charters, few district schools are adding new grade levels. But even among those that are, enrollment has fallen overall.)
“There’s a misconception that charter schools aren’t getting hurt by enrollment during the pandemic. But we clearly, clearly did—no question.” said Ron Tabano, principal and CEO of John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy Charter School