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Enrollment is way up, thanks in a large part to charters. But can the city build on the success?

It is good news indeed that the number of students enrolled in traditional DC Public Schools and public charter schools increased by 5 percent between October 2011 and October 2012, the fourth consecutive annual increase. Those familiar with the District know that the sizeable public charter sector—second only to New Orleans—played a significant role.

Public charter school enrollment exploded since its start in 1996. Today, 57 charter schools on 102 campuses serve approximately 43 percent of all District public school students. And more charters are expected to open in 2013 after approval by the DC Public Charter School Board.

But DCPS enrollment has recently stabilized as well, which is an accomplishment in the midst of tough charter competition and recent school closings.

Looking at the total student enrollment by grade, we see that the expansion of early childhood grades drove this overall increase. DCPS and public charter schools expanded slots for preschool (which serves 3-year-olds) and prekindergarten (4-year-olds) by almost 7,000 students between 2001 and 2012. These grades are not compulsory in the District but reflect the commitment and investment the city has in early childhood education to later improve children’s educational outcomes.  According to a recent Washington post article, preschool and PreK enrollment in public schools and other programs offering free early childhood education approaches “universal” enrollment  (approximately 85 percent of age-appropriate children are enrolled).

Also promising is that the early childhood influx that started in 2008 now extends to 1st grade with a new uptick in 2nd grade as well. The fear that the new preschool and prekindergarten students would leave after receiving free “daycare” has not occurred, yet. Instead, DCPS and public charters are working to keep these families by expanding already successful schools and offering a wider array of programming such as Montessori, language immersion, and “expeditionary” learning. The back-to-the-city movement appears to have contributed as well. Many new young families want to remain in the District, reduce their work commute, and invest in their communities. Families of young children are enrolling and getting involved in public schools.

This post originally appeared on the Urban Institute's MetroTrends blog, an Atlantic partner site.

Top image: Jorge Salcedo /Shutterstock

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