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Miami-Dade surpasses Chicago as the nation's third largest school district - at least for now

MDCSPStudentsClassroomMasks_MHFilePhoto.jpeg
Miami Herald File Photo
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Despite losing tens of thousands of students since the beginning of the pandemic, Miami-Dade County Public Schools has outpaced Chicago to become the nation's third largest school district -- at least for now.

Fall enrollment numbers show that Miami-Dade County Public Schools is now the third largest school district in the country — at least for now. MDCPS has surpassed Chicago Public Schools, despite losing more than 22,000 students since the start of the pandemic in the 2019-2020 school year.

Chicago Public Schools has long been the nation’s third largest school system, but the district’s enrollment numbers have been falling for more than a decade, as tens of thousands of students transferred to private schools, moved out to the suburbs or switched to homeschool.

WLRN’s sister station WBEZ reported that as of Sept. 20, CPS’ official enrollment is 322,106 students. That’s just shy of MDPCS’s headcount of 324,961, according to Jaquelyn Calzadilla Diaz, administrative director for the district’s communications office.

Chicago’s school chief Pedro Martinez says the declines are due to a number of factors.

“Our enrollment numbers reflect many changes, including declining birth rates,” Martinez said at a Chicago Board of Education meeting this week, according to WBEZ. “But they also present us with an opportunity to review our practices and to ensure that we’re providing the best programming and services to our students.”

New York City Public Schools remains the largest district in the nation, with more than 1 million students, according to the New York City Department of Education. The Los Angeles Unified School District comes in at number two, with more than 430,000 students enrolled last year, according to KPCC.

Edging into the country’s three largest districts could raise the visibility of MDCPS, which serves a very diverse population of kids — more than 90% of whom identify as Hispanic or Black and nearly 75% of whom are economically disadvantaged.

But like districts across the country, Miami-Dade has been losing students as the pandemic has pushed families to rethink what they want out of their schools.

LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who previously led MDCPS, has said that one of the factors driving students out of public schools — especially undocumented immigrants — is the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

"There was no opportunity to work. The kids left with the families. And they left by the thousands,” Carvalho told journalists during a national conference of the Education Writers Association in July.

According to district statistics, MDCPS' enrollment has dropped by more than 45,000 students in the past two decades.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter