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Public school enrollment jumps in N. Va., heading to 40 percent of state’s students

Thu, Nov 20, 2014

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Enrollment in Northern Virginia’s public schools is surging toward a record even as student populations dwindle in the vast majority of school systems across the state in the wake of the 2008 recession, according to a new University of Virginia study.

Just 31 percent of Virginia’s districts saw public school enrollment increase since 2008, the U-Va. study found, with schools in the Washington region — including Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties — showing the biggest gains.

U-Va. demographics researcher Hamilton Lombard, who led the study for the college’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, said the findings could foreshadow significant changes for Virginia’s public schools.

Lombard said that rural schools’ enrollments have plummeted in recent years, which could cause budget problems for smaller school districts. Rural schools often depend on state funding, which is tied to enrollment, Lombard said. As those school districts contract, so will their share of state education funds, Lombard said.

“In many divisions, particularly those in rural areas of the state, declining enrollment will force decisions to cut costs, or raise revenues,” according to the study, released Wednesday night. “School boards and division leaders may need to consider eliminating selected programs and extracurricular activities, or closing or merging schools. Each program or sport eliminated risks creating a gap in educational quality between population- and resource-rich urban schools and those in rural communities — at a cost to the Commonwealth overall.”

Northern Virginia schools will soon have to contend with ballooning enrollment and will have to consider expanding schools to address crowded classrooms, according to the study. In Fairfax, the administration opened its first multistory school in a converted office complex.

“Enrollment growth is increasingly being concentrated in Northern Virginia,” Lombard said. “How they deal with it space-wise is definitely going to be something a lot of school divisions have to think about.”

By 2018, Northern Virginia’s public schools will make up 40 percent of all enrollment in the state, according to the study. In Fairfax, school district data show that enrollment is projected to hit 195,806 by 2018, an increase of 9,000 students compared with this year.

Lombard said the study shows that without the growth in Northern Virginia, public school enrollment would have dropped slightly compared with 2008.

Two factors contributed to the apparent growth in Northern Virginia school enrollment, he said: the lack of families moving around the state and a significant increase in birthrates. After the recession, fewer families packed up their homes and moved from Northern Virginia, Lombard said, a departure from past years, when parents chose to raise their children in smaller communities. Also, Lombard said, birthrates in Northern Virginia have jumped compared with the rest of the state. In 2008, there were 28,191 people born in Northern Virginia. Last year, there were 40,051, a 42 percent increase compared with five years earlier.

“Not only were class sizes for entering kindergartners in many school divisions smaller, but also overall enrollment declined as fewer families moved in, or more families moved out,” according to the study. “Demographic pressures, coming from opposite directions, will challenge Virginia school divisions in the years ahead.”

t.shapiro@washpost.com

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