By Mary Ann Zehr / EdWeek
August 27, 2007
The nation’s public schools are poised to welcome an unprecedented 49.6 million pre-K-12 students as the school year opens, but whether individual school districts see an increase in students depends a great deal on where those districts are located.
The increase—a projected rise of 1 million this fall from the 2005-06 school year, the most recent national numbers available from the federal government—continues a 10-year trend, with statisticians predicting that schools in the West and the South will receive more students, while schools in the Midwest and the Northeast will experience a decline.
“Immigrants are moving to the West and South. Minority populations of American-born people are very heavy in the West and South— and these are people with more children per household than the rest of the country,” said Harold L. Hodgkinson, an Alexandria,Va., demographer who studies the impact of population trends on education.
In particular, he added, the rising number of Hispanic youngsters in the United States is fueling overall growth in enrollment and is expected to do so for at least two more decades.
But when it comes to particular school districts, those broad patterns can play out very differently; administrators in some districts that have already started classes report enrollment that doesn’t match national trends.
While enrollment is on the upswing in the South, for example, the Atlanta public schools and the Dougherty County schools in Albany, Ga., are losing students to suburban districts.
And while enrollment is generally declining in the Northeast, Superintendent Sal V. Pascarella, of the 10,000-student Danbury, Conn., school system, reports that his district has just completed a study projecting that enrollment will increase by a few hundred students over the next five years.
“The individual districts do have markedly different patterns,” said Tom D. Snyder, the director of annual-report programs for the National Center for Education Statistics, in a word of caution about understanding national statistics.
The country has been breaking new records each year in pre-K- 12 public school enrollment since 1997, when a record of 46.1 million students was set, according to Mr. Snyder. Before that, the previous record was set in 1971, with 46 million students, as the children born in a “baby boom” following World War II got their education. In the 1970s, enrollment declined and didn’t start steadily increasing again until the mid-1980s.
This fall, Mr. Snyder said, the number of public prekindergarten and elementary school pupils will increase by 0.6 percent over projected enrollment for the previous school year, and the number of secondary school students will increase by 0.2 percent over the previous year. He added that while elementary school students make up a slightly larger share of the projected increase for this school year, that bulge will likely grow in the next few years as larger groups of children are expected to enter elementary school.
The NCES, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, uses U.S. Census Bureau data and its own statistical methods to project enrollment. The organization usually releases actual enrollment figures about 1½ years after the schools collect the data.
The NCES doesn’t project the ethnic and racial makeup of student enrollment, but actual figures for that makeup through the 2005-06 school year illustrate patterns that some demographers say are likely to continue.
Those figures show that the share of enrollment for Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander students grew rapidly, while that of non-Hispanic whites declined. In the 2005-06 school year, for example, 19.8 percent of the student body nationally was Hispanic, up from 13.5 percent a decade before.
The proportion of student enrollment that was Asian or Pacific Islander increased to 4.6 percent, from 3.7, in those same years. The share of non-Hispanic black students grew slightly, to 17.2 percent from 16.9 percent.
Meanwhile, the percentage of non-Hispanic white students decreased to 57 percent from 64.7 percent in that same 10-year period.
The Pew Hispanic Center projects that the number of schoolage children will increase by 4.8 million by 2020, and that 4.7 million of those children will be Hispanic, meaning that Hispanic children will account for 98 percent of the growth.
But such growth is not evenly distributed, according to Richard Fry, a senior research associate at the center, a Washington-based organization that studies the impact of Latinos on the nation. He conducted a study showing that 10 percent of the nation’s schools absorbed about 75 percent of all Hispanic growth from the 1993-94 school year to the 2002-03 school year.
His current research also shows that that 86 percent of Hispanicstudent enrollment took place within 100 metropolitan areas.
One of the fastest-growing school districts in the country, Nevada’s Clark County system, which encompasses Las Vegas, reflects the national trend of growth in Hispanic enrollment.
“There has been a booming housing market. We do have an influx of immigrants,” said Jaime L. Lea, a public-information specialist for the Clark County school system, which has grown by about 12,000 students a year for at least a decade. She said that for the 2007-08 school year, enrollment is expected to be 314,400 students, up from about 302,800 last year.
The district was to open nine new schools and two replacement schools on Aug. 27, the scheduled first day of school. Ms. Lea said the district hires some 2,000 to 2,500 teachers a year, and as of last week, still had vacancies for 393 classroom teachers.
In other growing areas, administrators say factors such as economics and even school test scores account for the increased enrollment.
Lawrence T.Walters, the superintendent of Lee County, Ga., school system, which started school Aug. 10, said the district’s enrollment of 6,100 is up by about 200 from the 2006-07 school year. Most of the growth is coming from middle-income white families moving to the area because of its “quality of life and schools,” he said.
He believes families have chosen to move to Lee County, in part, because the word has gotten out that every school in the district has made adequate yearly progress every year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s Dougherty County—a neighboring district to Lee County that has 16,500 students this school year—has been losing 50 to 100 students each school year for several years, according to Brenda Horton, the public-information director for the school district. She said the middle- income population of Albany, which is in Dougherty County, is tending to move out of that city to more rural counties around it.
The 18,900-student Beaufort County district in South Carolina, by contrast, has seen student growth both from middle-income families and lower-income Hispanic households.
“We are a very popular destination,” said Tom F. Hudson, a communications specialist for the district, which is located in a resort area. “We’re right on the coast around Hilton Head.We’re seeing an increase of residential housing. We see growth among people who work in that industry, … so we’re seeing a rise in our Hispanic population as well.”
In South Carolina, school systems such as the Beaufort County district and the Richland 2 school district near Columbia have been successful in persuading their communities to pass bond referendums to pay for new schools.
But in other parts of the country where enrollment is declining, administrators are trying to figure out how to pay for basic operations.
Mary Stadick Smith, the communications director for the South Dakota Department of Education, said the nature of agriculture is changing, and young people are not staying in the state’s rural areas. Enrollment is declining in South Dakota except for a few urban areas such as Sioux Falls, she said.
South Dakota’s enrollment has dropped by about 1,000 students every year for the past several years, said Rick Melmer, the secretary of education for the state, which the NCES categorizes as part of the Midwest. For a state that now has 120,000 students in K-12 schools, that’s a significant decline.
“It’s been difficult because our funding formula is on a per-pupil basis,” Mr. Melmer said. “With declining enrollment, you’re filling that financial hole every year.”
Enrollment changes—in either direction—put pressure on school financial officers, facilities directors, and others who plan for the future of schooling in a community. But Mr.Walters, of the Lee County schools in Georgia, said he considers the growth to be “a compliment.”
“We’d rather work on problems associated with people wanting to move here,” he said, “than problems of consolidating and people moving out.”