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West, South To Bear Brunt of Enrollment Boom

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The school enrollment boom that began 14 years ago will continue across the West and South over the next decade, but will taper off throughout the Midwest and Northeast, a federal report predicts.

Schools in California, Georgia, and other states with burgeoning cities and suburbs will continue to feel the crush of enrollment growth until 2007--albeit at a slower rate than over the past 10 years--and will absorb most of the projected 1.9 million increase in the number of students nationwide.

But rural states such as Maine, Nebraska, and Oklahoma can expect to see the number of their schoolchildren level off or decrease slightly over the same period, according to the report released last month by the Department of Education, titled "Here Come the Teenagers."

"The impact will not be felt universally or evenly across the country," Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the commissioner of education statistics at the department, said at an Aug. 21 news conference here.

In all regions, cities and suburbs will experience a disproportionate share of the growth. Enrollments in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, and other major cities will rise by double-digit percentages.

"The child population is growing fastest in places where children's conditions are the worst," said William P. O'Hare, the director of the annual Kids Count survey published by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. "We're putting more and more kids in places where the outcomes are the worst."

More High Schools

The biggest growth in student population will take place among teenagers. Public high school enrollment will rise from an estimated 13.1 million this fall to 14.9 million in 2007.

That means the cost of the continued wave of enrollment growth is likely to be higher over the next 10 years than it was in the past decade, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said.

Projected Enrollment Changes: 1997 to 2007

School districts need to invest in more new high schools, which cost twice as much to build as elementary schools, he said.

"I don't want any young person to get lost in the shuffle simply because a school is so big that they have no one to turn to when they need help," Mr. Riley said.

What's more, the pressure on primary schools won't let up. Enrollment in preschool through 5th grade is projected to stay at current levels through 2007.

"Unlike the decline after the previous baby boom cycle ... the numbers of births in the 'baby boom echo' is not expected to fall off, but remain fairly stable," Mr. Forgione said. "There's not a light at the end of the tunnel. It's going to be a sustained enrollment impact."

Overall, public school enrollment will increase by about 1.9 million, or 4.1 percent, over the next 10 years, according to the federal projections. The number of private school children will rise by 198,000, or 3.4 percent.

In the West, the number of public school students will increase by 1.3 million, or 11.6 percent, and in the South, by 893,000, or 5.6 percent. The enrollment figures will stay level at about 8.1 million in the Northeast and will drop by 246,000, or 2.3 percent, in the Midwest.

Public school enrollment will climb to 46.3 million this fall, breaking the record of 45.7 million set last year. ("For the Record: Enrollment Surges to 51.7 Million," Sept. 4, 1996.) Private schools will enroll 5.9 million students this fall, the Education Department says.

For schools in booming areas, continued growth will mean constructing expensive new buildings, managing classes in portable buildings, or squeezing students into overcrowded permanent ones, according to federal officials.

But a declining population creates headaches of its own, one educator said in an interview. When faced with sagging enrollment and the decreased tax revenues that often come with it, superintendents and principals need to trim from their faculties and scramble to pay for the repair of aging buildings.

"Declining enrollment eats you up," said Timothy J. Dyer, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va. "When you're building schools, you're promising something. When you're declining, you're taking something away that the public has already paid for."

Ups and Downs

The growth of students within some states may be as uneven as the national map. For example, the Education Department estimates that Virginia will be educating an additional 1.2 million public school students--an increase of 7.4 percent--10 years from now.

But Virginia Beach--the state's largest city--expects to see a disproportionate share of those students.

With the boom of the local economy and the expansion of U.S. military facilities in the area, the school system estimates its student population, now 77,000, will grow 37 percent in the next five years, Superintendent Tim Jenney said at a panel discussion the Education Department organized for the release of the report.

In the state's rural Appalachian areas, meanwhile, the economy is deteriorating and the population is dropping, said Mr. O'Hare, the demographer in charge of the Kids Count project.

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