Opinion Columns & Blogs

Chase M. Billingham: Head count masks enrollment trends

Enrollment in the Wichita school district has increased to the highest level since 1975 (Sept. 26 Local & State). According to the official head count, the district is educating more than 51,000 students.

Superintendent John Allison attributed the district’s rising enrollment to the quality of instruction that students receive in the city’s schools. “The Wichita Public Schools has quality teachers, schools and programs, and the enrollment increase shows our families know that their students will receive a quality education throughout the district,” he said.

Though it is encouraging to hear that the district is attracting new families to the city’s public schools, this modest increase in enrollment should not be interpreted as an unmitigated success. The absolute increase in the district’s head count masks divergent trends among racial and ethnic groups within the city.

Nearly all of the increase in the district’s student body can be attributed to the rapid rise in the number of Hispanic students attending Wichita schools. In just 20 years, the number of Hispanic students in the Wichita district has risen more than 300 percent, from fewer than 4,000 to more than 16,000.

Over that same period, enrollment among African-Americans has been essentially flat. After rising consistently through the 1990s and early 2000s, black enrollment has declined significantly since 2003 – so much so that the number of black students in the Wichita school district is actually lower today than in the early 1990s.

And black enrollment declines have been mild in comparison with white enrollment declines in the city’s public schools. In 1993, there were more than 31,000 white students in district schools. That number has dropped almost every year since then. By 2013, the Wichita district had fewer than 18,000 white students, a decline of more than 40 percent in two decades.

These drops in black and white enrollment would be somewhat less alarming if they were due solely to shrinking populations among those demographic groups, but this is not the case according to census data.

What these figures indicate is that, at least among black and white families, parents do not have as much “confidence in what their children are being provided” as the superintendent suggested. This is a shame, because the superintendent is right that the district is staffed by dedicated teachers and provides many high-quality options to the city’s children. Still, in Wichita as in all American cities, many students continue to struggle, and many schools underperform.

A high-quality public school system is essential to a city’s growth and economic development, and Wichita’s economic prosperity will suffer unless families with children from all racial and ethnic groups believe that their children can prosper in the city’s public schools.