Every year since the massive 2013 merger of schools in Memphis and Shelby County, enrollment for the consolidated district has dropped.
Most precipitous was the whopping 34,000 students who left the new Shelby County Schools in 2014 as six suburban towns formed their own school systems in a shakeup known as the “de-merger.”
Another 11,000 students were siphoned off gradually by Tennessee’s turnaround district, which has taken over low-performing Memphis schools annually since 2012.
But this school year, for the first time since the merger, the shrinkage stopped — and even reversed course a little.
Enrollment for district-run schools is 92,400, up by 2,000 students, according to preliminary numbers provided by Shelby County Schools. It’s a modest but serendipitous gain for a district that is Tennessee’s largest but was bracing for another small decline.
Add in charter schools, and the total enrollment is just under 107,000, a 2 percent increase from last year. (Charters make up a fourth of Shelby County Schools. They are public schools that are privately managed. All of the totals are based on the 20th day of the school year and are still being finalized.)
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson calls the increase a significant victory, especially considering that the district started the school year behind on enrollment. The higher student count already has translated into $7.6 million more in state funding than expected, he said.
“Just to be able to say we’ve stopped the bleeding this year and actually be on the trajectory to increasing attendance speaks to the work that’s going on in our schools,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday.
District leaders hope this year’s enrollment starts an upward trend after years of losing students.
The decline was not new. Under the former Memphis City Schools, fewer and fewer students were attending public schools in the years leading up to the merger.
Although it remains to be seen whether the uptick can be sustained, this year’s reversal was no accident. Shelby County Schools has worked feverishly to attract and retain students as the city’s educational landscape has splintered and the climate has grown friendlier to school choice.
The district invested $150,000 toward marketing and training principals to sell their schools through a campaign known as “Retain, Recruit & Reclaim.” The effort takes a page out of the charter school playbook on recruiting students to their classrooms.
“This is the first year the district decided to be smart about first and foremost keeping the students we have … and recruiting students,” Hopson said. “There’s a lot conversation in Memphis about choice. And we want to make sure our families and constituents know we have great choices also. That’s something to be proud of.”
Bruce Elementary saw the largest jump in enrollment among district-run schools. As a result, just one classroom sits empty at the midtown school, compared to seven last year.
About half of its hundred new students came from Carnes Elementary, which closed in May. The rest were drawn by extracurricular activities or experiences during this year’s summer learning academy, said principal Archie Moss.
“Constant recruitment is a part of the job,” Moss said. “You have to sell what’s so unique about your school.”
Hopson’s administration also cites the Achievement School District’s enrollment decline as one reason behind the growth of Shelby County Schools. The state’s turnaround district paused on school takeovers last year and closed two of its charter schools, sending about 350 children elsewhere. And when its state-run charter in Raleigh moved across town, most of those students transferred to locally run Raleigh-Egypt Middle School, Hopson said.
An estimated 150 students came district-wide from the new summer learning academy, according to Joris Ray, assistant superintendent for academic operations.
“We strategically extended invitations to all students, even private school students, for them to see what Shelby County Schools has to offer,” Ray said.
Enrollment in Memphis’ charter schools increased from 13,900 to more than 14,400, or about 4 percent, based on preliminary numbers. That brings charter school enrollment to 13 percent of students in Shelby County Schools.
Hopson said the overall trend has potential to continue — if the district can also continue to improve its academics.
“We don’t just want to be trying to poach numbers and run the score up,” he said. “We want to make sure these kids are coming back to and they’re afforded high-quality options.”