A very long post, but those of you who are interested in numbers (which will drive much of the planning process) will want to consider this:
At the presentation at Hope high last week, Bill DeJong reported School Department data from 2005, showing 1,644 K-8 (public & private) students living on the East Side (i.e. east of I-95). These numbers were the basis in part of a recommendation to close either King ES or Bishop MS.
The 2000 census for tracts 31-37 (nearly precisely the same area) puts the number of East Side K-8 children at 2,256 The difference is 612 children, or 27%!
Why this discrepancy? One possibility is that the School Dept. numbers undercount children. Census numbers are never perfect, but this gap is too large for Census miscounts to be the reason. ESPEC members are trying to get at the root of this, and Mr. DeJong has been very forthcoming with data, for which we are grateful. We will update you on this when we have more information.
But if the numbers ARE right, where did the children go? Are birth rates low among East Siders? Is the east side population aging? Are rising home prices keeping out younger families? Some combination of the above? Could another cause be the emigration out of the city of parents seeking decent public schools? We certainly know anecdotally that this is happening.
Here is a clue as to what might be going on, again assuming the School Dept. numbers are right. Based on the School Dept. figures, the number of K-8 children enrolled in private schools went from 1,131 to 985, a 13% change. Public school enrollment by East Siders went from 1,125 to 659, a drop of 41% in five years! Thus, roughly three-quarters of the total loss came from public school enrollments. These 446 students are enough to fill a medium-sized school like Vartan Gregorian or Esek Hopkins.
Still assuming the accuracy of the School Dept. numbers, low levels of public school enrollment on the East Side are clearly neither permanent nor inevitable; they were once much higher and could be again. Closing schools in response to declining enrollments confuses cause and effect in this case. Enrollments decline when families leave the city in response to poor public school quality, or the perception of poor quality.
We could keep on closing schools until only those who cannot afford to leave are left, but we shouldn't. One value of public education is that people from different backgrounds learn about the world together, and learn about each other in the process. It also means the fate of the best-off is connected in obvious ways with the fate of the less-fortunate. The withdrawal of so many East Side children from the public schools fosters a 2-class educational system that is harmful to the fabric of our society.
The solution is to create and promote good-quality public schools to which all parents wish to send their children. In a city that has the vision and drive to rebuild itself into the jewel that Providence has become, this can be done, and it should be done.
The data tables can be found on at www.EastSideEd.org under "Dejong numbers vs. Census numbers".
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