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What you should know about the Boston Foundation’s report on the city’s declining child population

“Boston’s got a lot going for it, but we’re gradually becoming a city of high-income, childless professionals.”

Kids walk toward the Mildred Avenue Middle School. Pat Greenhouse / Boston Globe, File

Boston is booming and the population of the city is growing. 

But Boston is losing its children, and those that remain are facing increasing isolation in the city’s schools, according to a new study from The Boston Foundation

The report, released Wednesday, highlights the decades-long decline in the population of children and how the changes in the makeup of the city’s young people is reflected in school district enrollments, leaving children who remain in Boston in increasingly segregated schools.

“We’re rapidly losing families with children,” the report states. “In particular, we’re losing families with K-12 school-aged kids. Even though our city’s total population has increased from a low point in 1980, we’ve actually lost school-aged population at the same time. And, if it weren’t for immigration, Boston’s school-aged population would have decreased even further.” 

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Study authors Peter Ciurczak and Luc Schuster from Boston Indicators and Antoniya Marinova from The Boston Foundation wrote that their hope is that the report’s demographic analysis will help spur conversations around promoting “greater economic and racial integration” in the city’s schools and “welcome all families” back to Boston.

“Boston’s got a lot going for it, but we’re gradually becoming a city of high-income, childless professionals,” they wrote in the study. 

The researchers found that Boston’s population of school-aged children, defined as aged 5 to 17, has fallen by almost 10,000 since 2000. In 2018, the population of children in Boston was estimated around 75,000, compared to the total population of around 695,926. 

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In 2018, the number of children in Boston was just over half the population observed in 1950. 

“Today, our total population is only 13 percent below the city’s 1950 high water mark, but our school-aged population is barely half what it was in 1950,” the researchers wrote. 

According to the study, Boston’s school-aged population declined across two phases — from 1970 to 1990 and then from 2000 to 2010. The first phase coincided with the city’s court-ordered desegregation of the schools and the growing suburbanization of the Boston region.  

Researchers posited that parental perceptions of Boston schools were likely factors in both decline phases. 

“During the more recent period of decline, numbers indicate that many families, especially higher-income ones, stayed in Boston when their kids were ages zero to four, but then left Boston when their kids turned school-age,” they wrote. “Whether or not such assessments are fair, the perception that K-12 schools are ‘better’ in the region’s higher-income suburbs is one likely reason why higher-income suburbs (like Winchester, Belmont and Wellesley) experienced some of the largest school-aged population gains in our region since 2000.”

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The sharpest decline in the Boston’s population of children, the study found, has been among middle-income families with children. 

“These are families that tend to be above the income cutoff for subsidized housing programs and yet earn below what it takes to afford the fast-rising housing costs in many of these high-income cities,” researchers wrote. “In today’s Boston, there are almost 6,000 fewer middle-income households with kids compared with 1980, even though our city has grown in total population.” 

Meanwhile, Boston’s recent population increase has been driven by households without children, particularly an increase in high-income households without children. 

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“The demographics highlight what has almost become two separate cities within our city,” Paul Grogan, CEO of The Boston Foundation, told the Boston Globe. “One of higher-income, less diverse, childless households, and the other of lower-income, largely black and Latino families in which the vast majority of the city’s children live.”

The study found that roughly half of Boston’s middle- and high-income families with children end up leaving the city once the kids become school age and the “vast majority” of that group are white households. 

As a result, a larger proportion of students enrolled in the city’s public schools are from low-income families. 

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“Today, almost 8 in 10 students remaining in Boston’s public schools are low income (77 percent as of 2014) and almost 9 in 10 are students of color (87 percent as of 2019, almost half of whom are Latino),” the study reads. “This has created a growing mismatch between the demographics of kids who attend Boston’s K-12 public schools and the city overall.”

The city’s overall population is “more than three times as white as Boston’s public school population,” the researchers found. And while the city itself may be “far more diverse” than it was decades ago, its schools have become “far less integrated.” 

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Researchers found that more than half of the city’s public schools are now “intensely segregated.” 

“This is troubling in light of the wide range of important benefits associated with educating children in integrated schools,” the study reads. “A large and growing body of evidence consistently finds that students who attend diverse schools have better academic, social, behavioral and economic outcomes — all advantages that collectively position them to succeed in an increasingly diverse workplace and break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.”

 The study didn’t propose any solutions, but Schuster, director of the Boston Indicators research project, told WBUR that Mayor Marty Walsh’s push to bring universal access to childcare in the city makes him optimistic. 

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“This raises big tough questions about who we are as a city,” Schuster told the Globe. “Are we OK with becoming this caricature of an elite, high-income capital city with no kids? We’re not there yet, but I worry we’re moving in that direction.”

The Boston Foundation hosted a panel discussion of the report after its release on Wednesday. 

“Too many students today go to schools mostly or only with others who look just like themselves or come from the same backgrounds,” Rev. Dr. Gregory Groover, pastor of the Charles Street A.M.E. Church and member of the foundation’s Board of directors, said during the event. “As I read about these trends I had to wonder what it means for all of us and for our future as a community, as a city. Just think if our children aren’t growing up and learning side by side with students from different races or income levels, are we then forgoing the benefits of diverse schools that have been so well established? Are we only re-segregating our schools? If there is such dramatic divergence between our youngest residents and the rest of our city, what questions does this raise for our joint future prosperity?”

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Watch a recording of forum below: 

https://vimeo.com/386475161

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