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CHCCS faces decline in student enrollment, experts point to housing and private education

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Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools experienced a 7.43 percent decline of the average number of students enrolled in its schools from the beginning of the 2019-20 school year to the end of 2022-23 — a decrease likely driven by demographic changes in the Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities and growing involvement in private schools.

CHCCS has maintained its position as the 30th-largest school district out of the state's 115 districts for the past several years, but had over 900 fewer students at the end of last school year than it did in 2019.

While Orange County's population grew by nearly 17,000 from 2010 to 2022, much of the growth occurred in those aged 65 and older. The share of Orange County's population older than 65 increased from just under 10 percent in 2011 to more than 14 percent in 2021.

Chapel’s Hill demographic change is a phenomenon counties all across North Carolina are seeing — the state population of people over 65 increased by 44 percent, while the under-18 population grew by less than 1 percent.

Theodore Nollert, a Chapel Hill Town Council member, said the decline could be related to the cost of housing and availability of jobs in the area.

“People who are coming tend to be older and to not have school-aged kids,” Nollert said.

Nollert said these older populations tend to be wealthier than the average young family, and that the lack of affordable housing can cause displacement among young families. Both the displacement and the decline in student enrollment is subsequently seen mostly among marginalized communities, he said.

Barbara Fedders, a member of the CHCCS Board of Education, said the populations of these marginalized communities have been declining over the past several years, which impacts student enrollment.

“In general, over the years, the Black population in Chapel Hill and Carrboro has gotten proportionally smaller because of gentrification,” Fedders said.

Emma Marshall, a research analyst at Carolina Demography, said the average number of students enrolled at public schools are decreasing, while average enrollment at private and charter schools are increasing.

In January, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners also decided to put a $300 million bond on the November ballot, pending approval from the state, to support the county's two public school systems. But, in 2023, the N.C. General Assembly expanded the Opportunity Scholarship Program, removing the income cap and increasing amounts of scholarships. Opportunity scholarships now range from about $3,000 to $7,000.

“Our budget for state funding depends on how many students we have,” Fedders said. “I think all of those [private] school vouchers, even if they're not directly affecting us right now, their existence really does threaten the long-term viability of public schools.”

Andy Jenks, the chief communications officer for CHCCS, said the district plans to promote the virtues of public education and advocate for more investment in public education.

“There's a wonderfully diverse community of staff, students and families who are part of an educational journey for 12,000 students from kindergarten all the way through their senior year of high school. It's an environment that can't always be replicated in other environments," Jenks said.

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article included incorrect quoted information regarding vouchers. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this confusion.

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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