Boston

CommonWealth Magazine

CommonWealth Magazine
Written by highergroundintl

IT’S ONLY A FEW WEEKS until students head back to school. In Boston, if this year is like last year, and like many others before that, there will be fewer of them in classrooms this fall.

Boston has been booming economically, a fact reflected in big population growth in recent decades. The city now claims more than 675,000 residents, according to the 2020 Census, an increase of more than 100,000 from 1980, when Boston’s post-World War II population bottomed out at 563,000. But that population surge has been accompanied by another trendline going the opposite direction: A steep decline in the population of school-age children in the city. In just the two-decade period from 2000 to 2020, Boston’s population of school-aged kids aged 5 to 17 fell by about 10,000 – going from 80,000 to about 70,000.

It’s a troubling trend, says Will Austin, founder and CEO of the Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit working to improve quality in Boston schools. “You can define families in many different ways, but the reality is that kids do make neighborhoods,” Austin said on This week’s episode of The Codcast.

Austin, 43, grew up in Dorchester and is raising his three school-aged children with his wife in Roslindale. Boston neighborhoods are far different from those of his youth. When he was growing up, Austin said, there were 18 school-age kids on his street, all within three years of age. There was a kind of “community in that space” that is increasingly hard to find in many Boston neighborhoods today.

There are lots of factors at play, said Austin, but chief among them is the swaring cost of housing in the city and the complicated student assignment process and uneven quality of schools in the district system.

Add in declining birth rates and smaller household sizes, and it’s led to a dramatic enrollment decline in the Boston Public Schools – from about 63,000 students in 1994 to about 48,000 today.

While school enrollment has been falling in many cities across the country, it’s not taking place everywhere. In fact, as Austin said, the decrease in school-aged kids in Boston is almost certainly directly connected to enrollment seen in some other districts, particularly those with large Black and low-income populations with more affordable housing. The population of school-aged children has increased in recent years in Stoughton, Randolph, and Chelsea, he said. Meanwhile, Boston has 16,000 fewer Black students in the public schools than it did 20 years ago.

Some of that dropoff is attributable to the growth of charter schools and popularity of the Metco program, but that doesn’t explain all of the change.

With fewer housing options for middle-income families, Boston is becoming a city of have-nots who rely on housing assistance of some kind, with childless households accounting for much of the population growth. We are already the fifth-most-childless major city in the country, Austin wrote in a recent essay in the Boston Globe, and we could threaten No. 1 San Francisco for the dubious distinction of being the most kid-free major American city if the trend isn’t halted and reversed.

One positive note, he said, has been at least a recognition of the crisis that the city is hemorrhaging families with children. “I would say that at least we have seen in the last year an acknowledgment of the problem,” he said. His organization has done analyzes of the falling population of school-aged kids and voiced concerns for several years “and largely met with deaf ears.” City officials kept saying “the families will come back, it’s a blip, you know, those types of things,” said Austin.

An aggressive housing production agenda is surely part of the answer, Austin said. But it has to be housing geared toward families, with home ownership help from city programs and other sources. “Every time I see a development going up that has a [large] Share of one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms, you’re saying, well, that’s not family housing, that’s not gonna solve the problem,” he said.

Austin said the city also has to focus on the uneven quality of schools for families to choose from, and the byzantine student assignment process that leaves many exasperated families looking for other school options, including packing up and moving to another community. Austin has advocated a streamlined “unified enrollment” system that would let families apply for seats at district and charter schools through a single process.

Meet the Author

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth’s Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston’s largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe’s City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for “The AIDS Quarterly,” a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for “Our Times,” a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth’s Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston’s largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe’s City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for “The AIDS Quarterly,” a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for “Our Times,” a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Even if there is progress in reversing the trend, Austin said, Boston is facing difficult choices to standardize schools. “The short-term consequences are pretty clear,” he said. “Less kids creates budget issues.”

“I think the core piece of this is that we want our kids to grow up in an area where they can have everything they need in terms of material and shelter and all the basics – Maslow’s hierarchy – but they also have the ability to develop relationships and build them,” Austin said. “And we’ve kind of slipped walked over the last two decades here in Boston, and have not really supported that and have kind of chased other forms of economic activity in city building. I’m hopeful with this new administration and with the stage that we’re in now in this country, that there can be a focus on creating policies that will drive the community. In a lot of ways, kids are often at the center of that.”

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highergroundintl

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