Boston’s Kids Today: Where Are They?

January 22, 2020

Read the report

At a public forum on January 22, the Boston Foundation released a research report that looks at population changes in Boston and, in particular, trends that affect the composition of Boston Public Schools students. In brief: Although Boston’s population is growing overall, many fewer school-aged children live in the city compared with the past, and the majority of those remaining come from low-income families.

Authored by Luc Schuster and Peter Ciurczak of the Foundation’s research team, Boston Indicators, and Antoniya Marinova, the Foundation’s Assistant Director of Education to Career, the report drills down from Boston’s declining school-aged population to the growing mismatch between city and school demographics and then looks within Boston schools at the increasing isolation of students of color and low-income students.

Antoniya Marinova
Report co-author Antoniya Marinova of the Boston Foundation

Each author presented a section of the report to a full house at the Edgerley Center for Civic Leadership. A closer look at the numbers shows the real youth population loss is concentrated in the middle class, and kicks in around the five-year-old mark. The story this suggests is one of young families starting out in Boston but moving away once their children approach Kindergarten and first grade. Maybe they just seek more space as their kids grow in number or size, but the consistent drop-off in the child population at school age indicates that parents are seeking other educational opportunities for their kids. If they can afford it. The wealthy may leave or stay and send their children to private school. The middle class increasingly struggles to remain in Boston, children or no, given the housing and transportation challenges they face. Paradoxically, lower-income families often can’t afford to move, having established supports both economic and social that enable them to survive in Boston.

The result? Fewer middle-class kids in the school system overall, and fewer white families. The population imbalance, combined with school choice prioritizing location in its algorithm, has left us with more and more schools “intensely segregated”—with more than 90 percent students of color. Indeed, most kids attend schools where almost all their peers are from the same narrow demographic cluster, e.g., Latino or Black. All the while, the system is getting “poorer” overall, with 97 percent of public schools having populations in which at least half of the students come from low-income families.

Shannah Varon and Ted McEnroe
Shannah Varon and Ted McEnroe of the Boston Foundation

This is troubling because of the proven benefits that accrue to students of all demographics when they attend a school with a diverse population mix. And because it appears that local and national pressures on several fronts are pushing back the progress Boston had made toward school integration.

These themes were taken up by a panel of deeply engaged professional observers and experts, moderated by the Boston Foundation’s Senior Director of Communications and Digital Media Ted McEnroe. This included Bill Forry, Editor/Publisher of the Dorchester Reporter; Yawu Miller, Managing Editor of The Bay State Banner; Monica Roberts, Chief of Student, Family and Community Advancement for Boston Public Schools; and Shannah Varón, Executive Director of Boston Collegiate Charter School. They discussed how they are seeing the reported population trends play out in their neighborhoods and schools, and what we might do as a city, region or even as individuals to reestablish some balance.

Bill Forry and Yawu Miller
Bill Forry (Dorchester Reporter) and Yawu Miller (Bay State Banner)

“We have to ask ourselves about the decisions we continue to make,” said Forry. “Think about the city we are building. Who are we building it for? Is the housing stock we’re building intended to grow the number of families?” He predicted that the reported trends are going to continue and even accelerate “unless there is some sort of dynamic shift in policy and leadership at the top.” Fellow journalist Miller concurred, driving home the fact that school population issues are entwined with other large challenges Boston and the region are facing—especially in housing and the hollowing out of the middle class. Roberts amplified that, adding that the entwined issues even extend to national challenges. For example, Massachusetts has been a magnet for immigrant families; how will national policy affect that source of population growth for us? But individuals are not exempt from responsibility. She pointed out that Boston is a reflection of its settlement patterns, and we settle in groups—Cape Verdeans here, Vietnamese there… “We have not integrated as a city,” she said. “If we want to see our schools more integrated, what are we doing as individuals, as community members to think about how we start to blur those lines?” The systems and structures are important, she noted, “but how are we as individual people thinking about our decisions? How are we owning our piece in creating this segregated system?” The panelists talked about the biases that inform how people select their schools. Varón, head of a notably non-segregated charter school, attested to the presence of bias and the lack of training for teachers and leaders to recognize it. “We have to decide as a city if [addressing] this is a priority.”

Monica Roberts and Shannah Varon
Monica Roberts (BPS) and Shannah Varon (Boston Collegiate)

Among the key suggestions from the panel for countering the segregation in schools and for enabling or encouraging middle-class and white families to stay in the city and school system (thereby diversifying it slightly), were the following:

  • Pursue a housing policy that keeps Boston a viable choice for middle-income families;
  • Increase and maintain the quality of all of Boston’s public schools,
  • Improve the messaging about school quality; and
  • Balance location-prioritized choice and the benefits of an integrated student body in school assignments.
An impassioned questioner during the audience Q&A, however, may have hit on the nerve of the issue in its broadest sense: Instead of worrying about whether today’s middle class families will stay or leave Boston, let’s ask how we can get more people into the middle class. “My children and my neighbors’ children are blocked from the middle class. They don’t know about these jobs, their families don’t, and you cannot aspire to what you don’t know!” She urged the city to address the barriers to knowledge of what it takes to achieve a middle-class status that are rife and systemically—perhaps thoughtlessly—perpetuated.