By Jaimie Julia Winters
The overall number of students listed as African American and Asian has declined in Montclair schools in recent years, while the white student population has remained consistent and the Hispanic student population has seen a slight uptick, a trend that is reinforced by a new enrollment report for the 2018-19 school year.
The report shows that dating back to the 2013-14 school year, the number of African American students has declined by over 7 percent, the largest shift in demographics in the last six years . However, some of the decline could be linked with a decision by the school district to add a new category — multirace — to its enrollment reports. When that category was introduced for the 2017-18 school year, 7 percent of the student population declared themselves multiracial, with 25 percent of students listing themselves as African American. In the previous school year, when the multiracial option was not yet a category, the African American student population was at 29.2 percent, more than 4 points higher.
Of note, too, is that the decline in the African American numbers that took place in the 2017-18 school year, after the multi-race category was introduced, has not carried into the current school year. In the new 2018-19 enrollment report, the African American student population is again at 25 percent and the multiracial population is again at 7 percent.
But if some of the decline in the African American student numbers may have to do with the introduction of the multi-racial category in 2017-18, another factor seems to be in play as well: the changing demographics of Montclair.
According to U.S. Census records, the overall African American population in Montclair dropped 3 percentage points, to about 24 percent, over a period extending from 2010 to 2017. During that same period, the white population rose from 63 to 65 percent. The Hispanic population increased 3 percentage points, to about 10 percent, and the Asian share of the population dropped to about 3 percent.
Now consider the school enrollment numbers, which span from 2013-14, the oldest enrollment report available, to 2018-19. That is not an exact match with the 2010-17 span of the Census report, but is close enough to make a useful comparison. Start with the figures for white students. In the 2013-14 enrollment report, the share of students listed as white was 51 percent and that figure remains the same in the 2018-19 enrollment numbers, even though the white population in Montclair has moved upward a little bit in recent years, according to the Census numbers.
Meanwhile, the Hispanic student population has moved up from 9.5 percent in 2013-14 to 11 percent in the new enrollment figures, which closely matches the growth in the overall Hispanic population in those same Census figures. And the Asian student population? It is down to 5.5 percent in the latest enrollment report, which also matches the drop in the overall Asian numbers in the Census figures.
And then, most significantly, there are the African American student numbers. In the 2013-14 report, 32 percent of those enrolled identified as African American. By 2016-17, that figure had dropped to 29.2. The multi-race category had yet to be introduced on the enrollment report. That suggests that the decline in African American students, at that point, was directly attributable to a decline in the overall African American population in Montclair. And that when the multirace category was introduced a year later, the decline in the number of students identifying as African American became even more pronounced.
“It is shocking to see this decline,” said James Harris, the vice president of the Montclair NAACP and chairman of the Education Committee of the NAACP. Harris points to the lack of rent control and high taxes as a driving force behind the fact that some African Americans are choosing to leave Montclair.
“New development may bring some affordable housing, but there is nothing to protect residents from these over-excessive increases. Parents then have to make that very hard decision of moving and pulling their kids out of the Montclair school district because they can’t afford to live here,” said Harris. “Who really cares about the decline of the African American population and diversity in Montclair? Do the developers, public officials, school officials?”
Harris said the Census and school-enrollment numbers “tell a narrative that the diversity that Montclair prides itself on is diminishing.”
There are other school numbers to consider as well. For instance, the number of free lunches that Montclair students receive has seen a 21 percent decline since 2015, with 883 students in the program in 2018. There has also been a decline since 2015 in the number of students who receive reduced-price lunches, although that number was slightly up this year.
“The decline in numbers for free and reduced lunches tells me the kids who qualify are leaving the district,” Harris said.
William Scott of the Housing Commission who has been pushing for rent stabilization, said that although complaints filed last year with Landlord/ Tenant Committee over exuberant rent increases topped 20, it’s hard to know how many people chose to leave rather than fight rent increases.
Meanwhile, the number of students who have transferred out of the Montclair school district to attend private schools has also declined. In 2015 at the height of a student exodus, 84 students transferred to private schools. In 2016, that number was 77 and in 2017 it was down to 66. At the same time, the number of students returning to Montclair after attending private institutions has increased — from 23 in 2015, to 61 in 2016 and 64 in 2017. The district did not offer demographics of the students in this category.
Christa Rapoport, the chairwoman of the Montclair Civil Rights Commission, noted that she gets inquiries from parents of color on whether their children should stay in Montclair schools or move to private institutions.
“My preference is that children remain in Montclair,” she said. “But the truth is, I see many times that African Americans are steered away from honors and AP classes. They don’t have the same opportunities as their non-black counterparts unless they are in special education or are geniuses. So sometimes the excellent student who can afford it moves onto private,” she said. “The achievement gap ignores this ‘bright flight.’”
The numbers imply that flight is now declining. But so are the overall numbers of African American students in the district.