In New Orleans and surrounding parishes, as in many districts nationwide, school enrollment has decreased in recent years. Districts like Austin, Atlanta, Nashville, Denver, and Charlotte have seen a decline, as have Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Charles, and Caddo Parishes. In the greater New Orleans area and statewide, we see this across both public and private schools.
This follows the downward trends in birth rates nationally and locally. New Orleans simply has fewer children in our city overall than we did twenty, forty, or sixty years ago. There were 700 fewer babies born in 2020 than in 2015 in New Orleans, a drop of 14%.
We also have a smaller local population than we have had in many years. New Orleans, like many other parishes statewide, has a shrinking population. Louisiana saw the fifth highest population loss nationally in 2021, according to the Census Bureau. Today, our city’s population is 20% smaller – roughly 100,000 people fewer – than it was before Hurricane Katrina.
This smaller number of people are also less likely to have children in their households. In 2000, about a third of our households in New Orleans had children. By 2019, there were fewer households overall, and under a fifth of them had children.Fewer children overall and fewer new babies in our city quickly lead to fewer kindergartners. Over time, as smaller entering classes of kindergarteners move to each following grade, the size of a school overall shrinks. It’s no surprise, then, that we’re now beginning to see the enrollment dips in early grades associated with the decline in births. Last school year, our district enrolled over 3,000 fewer students across grades K-5 than it had just five years prior. We therefore expect enrollment to continue dropping in the years to come; the smaller classes will have reached high schools by 2024.
Enrollment declines are already leading to empty seats in our school buildings. Last school year, our schools had more space than they needed–they did not enroll the number of students they hoped for. Our buildings weren’t being used to their full capacity. We expect that when New Orleans’ schools annual “October enrollment counts” are released, we will see over 6,000 empty seats across the district. On average, schools in our city will have enrolled about 83% of the students they could have.
Because schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, having empty seats is tough on schools, financially. Fewer students means they’re less able to provide the resources, courses, or activities that provide students with the holistic and fulfilling experience they deserve. For an average-sized K-8 school with an expected enrollment of 550 students, enrolling only 83% of its seats means an estimated $850,000 funding gap per year from students they expected to enroll, but didn’t.
To fill that gap, schools have to make budget cuts or hard decisions about what they can provide to kids. They can’t change “fixed costs” like facility maintenance and utilities, so they have to make cuts where they might have offered arts programming or extracurricular activities, or hired additional nurses, social workers, or interventionists. Many schools have been bolstered by pandemic relief funds in recent years; as these run out in the next two years and incoming kindergarten classes continue to shrink, financial pressures will become more intense.
These are daunting realities, but we can and will address them. We believe in our schools and we are immensely grateful to our educators, who continue to do great work in our city. These lowered enrollments are the result of changes we’re seeing across the country and locally across public and private schools alike.
We can all come together to help our district adjust in the years to come. At NSNO, we are already working closely with NOLA-PS and schools to analyze these trends. We will continue to look closely at data and take a careful, strategic approach to this challenge. We will also continue to offer support to individual schools as they think through their own unique circumstances. We will lead with clarity and empathy as we think about how we can make sure that our schools are the right size for their students, so that every child has the resources they need and deserve.
This is an ongoing process, and we’ll continue to keep you updated as the year goes on. If you are interested in learning more about the enrollment decrease and the causes behind it, you can take a look at our in-depth analysis here.