Chapter Three

Enrollment Trends

Little Rock School District enrollment data reveal a long-term trend toward a higher percentage of African-American students and a lower percentage of white students. In 1957-58, when the historic desegregation efforts began in Little Rock, the total enrollment of the district was 21,752, of which 74 percent were white students. In 1996-97, the total enrollment was 25,032, of which 67 percent were African-American students. Although enrollment patterns since 1984 have varied somewhat at elementary, junior high, and high school levels, overall trends have been persistent despite changes in court orders, school policies, and district boundaries.

City Population

In the three decades between 1960 and 1990, the population of the City of Little Rock, the largest city in Arkansas, grew by 63 percent, from 107,813 to 175,795, according to the U. S. Bureau of the Census. (See Figure 3-1.)

In 1960 the white population was 82,461, and the African-American population was 25,352. By 1990, the white population had increased to 113,707, an increase of 37.9 percent. In that same period the African-American population grew to 59,742, a growth of 135.7 percent.

Figure 3-1

In 1960, whites were 76 percent of the city's population, and African-Americans were 23 percent. In 1990, whites were 64 percent and African-Americans were 35 percent. During this period, however, the make-up of the city's school-age population changed more substantially. In 1990, even though the total population ratio was 65 white to 35 African-American, the school-age population was approximately 50/50. This has come about through growth in the number of African-American children since 1960 and an actual decline in the number of white children since 1970.

In 1960, school-age children constituted 21.3 percent of Little Rock's population. In 1990, this figure had declined to 17.4 percent. This trend in Little Rock parallels the national trend toward an older population. In 1990, school-age children constituted 16.8 percent of the national population.

County Setting

In the last national census in 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Pulaski County, the most populous county in the state, was the home of 349,660 Arkansas residents. Pulaski County is served by three school districts: the Little Rock School District (LRSD), the North Little Rock School District (NLRSD), and the Pulaski County Special School District (PCSSD).

Figure 3-2 shows an outline of Pulaski County. It also includes the boundaries of the Cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock, and identifies the three school districts in the county. The percentage in 1990 of African-American population between the ages of five and 17, was 51.0 percent in the LRSD, 40.5 percent in the NLRSD, and 22.3 percent in the PCSSD.

Figure 3-2

The boundaries of the LRSD generally coincide with the city limits of the City of Little Rock. There are two exceptions on the west side of the city and a small area on the southeastern side. Similarly, the boundaries of the NLRSD generally coincide with the city limits of the City of North Little Rock. Again there are exceptions on the west, north, and east sides of the city where annexations have taken place in unusual patterns. The PCSSD covers the parts of the county not included in the LRSD or the NLRSD, and generally encircles the other two. Although the county is not round, the PCSSD appears somewhat as a donut with the LRSD and the NLRSD making up the hole in the center.

School District


After 1957, the African-American/white ratio of students enrolled in the LRSD moved gradually toward an African-American majority. In 1958 the ratio was 74 percent white and 26 percent African-American.

Figure 3-3 may be a picture worth a thousand words. It gives a snapshot of almost 40 years of LRSD history. Figure 3-3 shows that as more African-American students and fewer white students enrolled, the ratio changed nearly every year until the 50/50 point was reached in 1974-1975. By the early 1980s the LRSD had a decidedly African-American majority of students.

In 1996-97, the LRSD enrollment consisted of 67 percent African-American students and 33 percent white students.

Figure 3-3

Public/Non-Public Enrollment

In reviewing enrollment patterns in the LRSD, it is instructive to attempt to estimate how many white children may be enrolled in private or parochial schools rather than in the LRSD. Although information on the exact number of students enrolled in private schools is not currently available, a comparison of the 1990 U.S. Census Bureau information with actual school enrollment provides a rough estimate.

The 1990 population count of children between the ages of five and 17 living within the boundaries of the LRSD was 30,036. The actual LRSD enrollment during the 1990/91 school year was 25,749, suggesting that 15 percent of eligible students may be enrolled in private schools.

The population of African-American children in the census was 15,343 but the actual enrollment was 16,556. There is an unexplained disparity of 1,213 between the reported population of African-American children and the actual enrollment. Most likely this resulted from the generally accepted under-counting, particularly of minority persons, in the 1990 census.

At any rate, it would appear that essentially all of the eligible African-American children were attending the LRSD in 1990. On the other hand, the census counts indicated that there were 14,693 non-African-American children living within the LRSD boundaries in 1990, while only 9,193 were enrolled in 1990/91. This would suggest that nearly 40 percent of the eligible non-African-American children were enrolled in private schools rather than in the LRSD.

Enrollment by Grade Level

It has already been shown in Figure 3-3 that the African-American/white ratio of enrollment in the LRSD went from 74 percent white and 26 percent African-American in 1957-1958 to 33 percent white and 67 percent African-American in 1996-1997. However, these changes have not been consistent across the various grades. At least since 1984 the changes have been minimal in the elementary schools but white enrollment has declined considerably in the junior and senior high schools.

The remainder of this chapter presents comparisons of enrollment patterns by race and grade levels in the LRSD since 1984, the year of the U. S. District Court's short-lived consolidation order. Significant variations in the enrollment will be observed in 1988. It was at that time that the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals mandated a change in district boundaries which placed a part of what was previously the PCSSD in the LRSD. The merged areas generally had higher proportions of white students, and the change made the LRSD larger and the PCSSD smaller. The chapter also presents enrollment information on magnet and incentive schools.

Elementary School Enrollment

The first comparison is of enrollment patterns by race in the elementary schools in the LRSD. Figure 3-4 shows the trend of African-American and white enrollment from 1984 to 1996. It is evident that African-American enrollment remained stable at slightly more than 8,000 from 1984 until 1988 when the district boundaries were changed. Since then it has been stable at a little more than 9,000. Similarly, white enrollment was stable at around 2,400 from 1984 to 1987 and has been stable at approximately 4,650 since then.

Figure 3-4
Figure 3-5 is even more graphic in showing African-American enrollment as a percent of total enrollment in the elementary schools. From 1984 to 1987 it was consistently in the 76-77 percent range. Since 1988, it has been consistently in the 64-67 percent range. In neither of these ranges was an upward or downward trend evident.

It would appear that neither African-American parents nor white parents of elementary school students considered the African-American/white ratio a problem during the 1984-1996 period. There was not a significant increase in African-American enrollment and there was not a significant decrease in white enrollment.

Figure 3-5
Junior High School Enrollment

The next comparison involves enrollment in the LRSD junior high schools during the 1984-1996 period. Figure 3-6 shows that white enrollment was declining in the early-1980s and continued to decline after the boundary changes in 1988 at somewhat the same rate. At the same time, African-American enrollment was gradually increasing in the early-1980s and it generally continued that trend before leveling off around 1994.

Figure 3-6

Figure 3-7 shows African-American enrollment as a percent of total enrollment in the junior high schools. From 1984 to 1987 it increased from 64.8 percent to 71.1 percent. The school district boundary changes reduced it to 60.8 percent in 1988 but it has continued upward on a consistent basis since then. In 1996 it reached 70.9 percent, nearly where it started when the boundaries were changed in 1988.

It is apparent that white parents were taking their children out of the LRSD during the junior high years and changes in the boundaries made no difference to them. What they had been doing previously was continued and the percent of African-American enrollment in the junior high schools will soon reach an historic high if the past trend continues.

Figure 3-7
High School Enrollment

Figure 3-8 shows African-American and white enrollment in LRSD high schools from 1984 to 1996. Prior to 1988 when the district boundaries were changed, both African-American and white enrollment appeared to be somewhat stable at 1,600-1,700 white students and 2,500-2,600 African-American students. After the boundaries were changed, however, white students started leaving the high schools in large numbers. From a high of 3,167 students in 1988, the number of enrolled high school students declined to 1,595 in 1996. African-American enrollment was relatively stable during this same period.

Figure 3-8

Figure 3-9 more dramatically shows what happened to the African-American/white student ratio in the LRSD high schools. It was relatively stable at 60 percent African-American students in the mid-1980s and declined to approximately 50% when the district boundaries were changed. Since that time a stable number of African-American students and a declining number of white students has resulted in a consistent and rapid increase in the percentage of African-American students. In 1996 it reached 66.9 percent, 6 percent higher than the previous highest point in the history of the district.

Figure 3-9

As noted in the chapter on the history of the LRSD, since the late 1960s and early 1970s, racial balance in all schools throughout a district has been a primary requirement in most court-approved desegregation plans, including Little Rock's. It is apparent from the foregoing figures that the efforts to control and direct school choices and thereby achieve stable racially-balanced classrooms throughout the district in Little Rock have been unsuccessful.

The families of elementary school students apparently were satisfied with the district in the early-1980s and have been in the years since, and little white flight has taken place. At the junior high schools, however, a similar level of satisfaction was not evident based on the enrollment patterns. In fact, all gains from the school district boundary changes in 1988 had been erased by 1996. The high schools appear to present a special case. Although the perception of a problem with the racial balance was not evident in the 1984-1987 period, there was a marked and immediate change following the boundary changes in 1988.

The reasons for the departure of white students in the junior and senior high schools are not totally clear. It should be noted that the boundary changes for the 1988 school year were accompanied by the implementation of a "controlled choice" student assignment plan in the LRSD which was approved by the court in 1986. The concept of the plan was to allow students to make three choices of schools to attend with the LRSD accommodating choices within the constraints of African-American/white ratios established for that grade level. Unfortunately the plan was implemented with the LRSD first making assignments and allowing the choices to come later. This procedure met with considerable criticism and may have been a factor in some white parents opting to leave the LRSD. Also, early in the school year in the fall of 1987, a contentious, 10-day teachers strike, the first in the state's history, had added to parental concerns about discord and instability in the Little Rock public schools.

Surveys of community residents, teachers, and administrators conducted in 1996 by the UALR Institute of Government revealed that safety and discipline in the LRSD were considered significant problems by both African-American and white citizens. White parents can generally be presumed to have more economic, social, and residential opportunities to resolve safety or discipline fears by enrolling their children in private schools or moving to other locations. This may also be a factor in the decrease in the number of white students in the secondary schools.

Whatever the reasons, 13 years of effort to stabilize the African-American/white enrollment ratios in the LRSD have not been successful. Nothing that has been attempted has changed the enrollment patterns and trends on a district-wide basis.

Enrollment in Magnet and Incentive Schools

One objective of magnet schools in the LRSD is to attract additional white students, thereby promoting racial balance. The magnet schools provide exemplary programs which attract students of all races. It appears that these schools have been successful in meeting the desired enrollment goals. In 1996, most of the magnet schools had enrollment ratios near a 50/50 mix of African-American and white students. In addition, such a mix has been stable during the past several years, as shown in Table 3-1.

Table 3-1

Initially, eight elementary schools were designated as incentive schools: Franklin, Garland, Ish, Mitchell, Rightsell, Rockefeller, Stephens, and Washington. Located in poorer, hard-to-desegregate parts of the city, with area populations that included students with the greatest need for academic improvement, they were to "address the academic, social and emotional needs of all student participants."1 Incentive schools were to be double-funded, in part to provide a comprehensive set of programs necessary to meet the needs of disadvantaged children as well as to make the schools magnets to whites; and they were double-funded in part as a quid pro quo for assigning African-American children (in the incentive schools) to virtually once-race schools.

Table 3-2 shows that in 1996 the incentive schools had been at the outset and continued to be essentially one-race schools, with the African-American enrollment of all of them exceeding 90 percent.

Although there have been individual success stories in the incentive schools, two conclusions appear to be in order: (1) Increased funding has not decreased the disparity in achievement. (2) The incentive schools programs have not succeeded in attracting white students.

Table 3-2

Observations and Options

Enrollment in a school district affects many things including such things as level of funding, the need to keep buildings in service, and the demand for teachers. Enrollment reflects the reputation of a district and it affects the morale of school personnel. Enrollment has an impact on the ability of the school district to provide stable, multi-racial classrooms. Declining white enrollment over the long run reduces the political and economic support of the district. For these reasons and more, the enrollment picture presented above is discouraging to all who believe a strong public school system is essential.

The enrollment record shows, as noted earlier in the chapter on the history of the LRSD, that the old dual school system of racial segregation has been destroyed, but it has not yet been replaced by a stable system that provides quality education to all children of the city. Business as usual, or business as usual revised one more time, would appear to have little chance of making much difference in the enrollment trends.

In general terms, if the LRSD wants to increase enrollment, that desire points to a strategy of attracting whites, because they constitute the available pool of K-12 "consumers" not already in the district's schools. However, any realistic strategy must also retain the African-Americans and whites who currently are in the schools. In any case, increasing and retaining student enrollment in the LRSD means providing more of what the consumers want--such as more discipline--and less of what they do not want--such as lack of discipline and anxiety about safety. Other chapters of this report address problems which reinforce the trends reported in this chapter and note options which, if taken, could have a positive impact on the trends.


1. Blueprint for Excellence: Little Rock School District Incentive School Programs - Franklin, Garland, Ish, Mitchell, Rightsell, Rockefeller, Stephens, Washington, n.d., Introduction, 1.

Chapter 4
Table of Contents