Enrollment Crunch Stretches the Bounds of the Possible

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Patricia Andrews, the principal of Davis Drive Elementary School in Cary, N.C., has mastered the art of looking on the bright side.

Granted, her gleaming new school in the burgeoning Raleigh suburb is hundreds of students over capacity, having been inundated since the day it opened last fall.

And yes, that has meant holding classes in storage rooms, hallways, loading docks, and even bathrooms while waiting for portable classrooms to arrive.

But Ms. Andrews, a longtime teacher and administrator in the fast-growing Wake County school district, prefers to accentuate the positive. The crowding, she explains, invites creative problem-solving. And it helps foster a sense among her staff that they're all in this together.

"We just chip in and go, go, go," said Ms. Andrews after a busy morning of pushing furniture from room to room just days before the start of school. "You've got to use your imagination. We're only limited by people's normal perception of what a classroom should look like."

Across the country, school administrators like Ms. Andrews are stretching the bounds of the possible as they grapple with rising and, in many cases, exploding enrollment.

Not for a quarter-century, in fact, have they been tested quite so strenuously.

The enrollment crunch has been building since 1985, when the number of elementary and secondary students reversed a 14-year slide brought about by declining birthrates in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Now, thanks to bumper crops of babies and renewed immigration, memories of education's boom years are reviving.

Total enrollment in the nation's public and private schools this year will surpass the previous high-water mark of 51.3 million set in 1971.

And the crest, demographers say, is nowhere in sight.

Over the next decade, America's schools are expected to add 3 million students to the 51.7 million enrolled this autumn. To accommodate them, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates, the nation will need 6,600 more schools, nearly 200,000 additional teachers, and billions of dollars in extra spending.

"It creeps up on you," said Debra E. Gerald, an enrollment forecaster for the NCES. "And then it explodes."

Feeling the Squeeze

That explosion has many school systems scrambling for classrooms, teachers, and the cash to pay for them.

This is especially true in the Sun Belt, but even many districts in Northern states face enrollment that is straining resources and putting upward pressure on class sizes and taxes.

With anti-tax sentiment running high, many communities are having trouble finding the money the new students require. In some districts, voters simply won't approve bond issues. Others are bumping up against limits on how much they can borrow.

Moreover, enrollment growth must often compete with other critical school problems, notably the struggle to maintain and modernize facilities originally built for the parents or even grandparents of today's students.

And in many cases, regulations or community expectations preclude substantial increases in class size as a means of coping with the influx.

"It's like a fat man in a suit," said Nelson Canton, a spokesman for the National Education Association. "If I put on 20 pounds and go buy a bigger suit, it's no problem. But if I'm trying to squeeze into a suit I wore when I was 20, I'll have a problem."

Bursting at the Seams

Across the country, the numbers are staggering:

  • In Clark County, Nev., the Michael Johnson of enrollment growth, the public schools serve nearly twice as many youngsters as they did 10 years ago. Double sessions, year-round calendars, hundreds of portable classrooms, and a mammoth building program are barely keeping pace with a 12-year boom expected to boost enrollment in and around Las Vegas to 179,000 students this fall.
  • In New York City, administrators in the nation's largest school system are frantically scrambling to squeeze in an astonishing 91,000 more students than they have room for this fall.

    Immigration has been fueling annual enrollment increases of about 20,000 students, an infusion made harder to accommodate by the city's perennial budget hardships and crumbling conditions at hundreds of schools. As a result, thousands of the district's 1.06 million students have been shoehorned into stairwells, locker rooms, old factories, warehouses, and even theaters.

  • In Broward County, Fla., a port of entry for immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, the district is gaining roughly 10,000 students a year, half of them foreign-born. The Fort Lauderdale-area district, expecting 217,000 students this fall, lost a special election last year on a plan to raise the county's sales tax by a penny to pay for building and modernizing schools. The result: a $1.4 billion gap between what it needs for facilities over the next seven years and what it expects to get.
  • Children in Sun Prairie, Wis., a well-heeled suburb of Madison, attend classes in trailers, hallways, and storage rooms. Classes are four or five students larger than five years ago because of steadily climbing enrollment, projected to approach 4,700 this fall. In May, on its fourth try, the district finally won voter approval of a bond package to build two new schools and add to another.
  • One of every four students in the Houston school district attends class in a trailer. Many of the district's 200,000 students are bused from severely crowded schools to less congested ones. Following the defeat of a $390 million bond proposal last spring, the superintendent proposed a controversial plan to contract with private schools to educate some students who would otherwise face a long bus ride. ("Houston Looks at Private Schools To Ease Overcrowding," Aug. 7, 1996.)

Boomlet To Blame

Demographers agree that the prime impetus for the enrollment juggernaut is the rise in births that began in the mid-1970s, often referred to as the baby boomlet or baby-boom echo.

In recent years, many of those babies have been born to older parents, who surprised demographers by delaying marriage and child-bearing to their 30s and beyond.

After bottoming out at 3.1 million in 1973, births in the United States rose to 4 million by 1989 and hovered above that level for five years.

The only other time in U.S. history that annual births exceeded that benchmark was from 1954 to 1964, a boom that triggered an explosion in school enrollment, construction, and teacher hiring through the 1960s and early '70s.

In addition to this increase in births, many districts are struggling to find desks for a flood of newcomers from other states. Schools in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and North Carolina have been strongly affected by population shifts.

Immigration, too, is fueling growth, as many districts, notably in California, Florida, New York, Texas, and in large inland cities like Chicago, cope with a steady stream of families from abroad.

By contrast, immigration was at unusually low levels when the last enrollment record was set in 1971.

Nationwide, immigration is a significant but not determinant factor in this decade's burst in enrollment, demographers say. But in some districts, it has meant growth that verges on unmanageable.

The Broward County schools will enroll 35,000 more students than it has seats for this year, said Superintendent Frank R. Petruzielo. That means the use of more than 2,000 portable classrooms and school lunches that start at 10 a.m.

Mr. Petruzielo calls the influx of foreign-born students "one of the largest unfunded mandates in the history of this country." The Florida district has spent about $500 million educating immigrant youngsters over the past five years, he pointed out, but only $1 million of that has come from federal funds earmarked for that purpose.

"You don't get money to cover the immigration impact," Mr. Petruzielo said. "If you have a lot of natural growth, that is exacerbated by this situation."

Barely Getting By

To cope with the crowding, most educators would prefer to build schools or add on to existing ones. But often they either lack the money to do so, or simply can't build fast enough to keep up with the demand.

As such scenarios become more common, administrators have been forced to become creative. Districts have reopened long-shut schools, converted warehouses to classrooms, or leased space from nearby districts with more room.

In some extreme cases, schools have turned to double sessions, where the first shift of students may start as early as 6 a.m. and the second may not leave until 6 p.m. Because of split sessions in some New York City schools, students are spending less time in class than state law requires.

Among the more typical solutions, though, are portable classrooms, increasing class sizes, and cramming students into every conceivable space.

In Montgomery County, Md., a suburban Washington district that expects 124,000 students this fall, officials have taken five schools out of mothballs and opened 27 new ones since 1985. Still, a relentless flow of new students has meant exceeding the district's class-size targets and housing 5,000 students in trailers.

One popular tactic is the use of year-round calendars with staggered schedules.

By dividing students and teachers into three or four tracks--in for nine weeks and off for three, for example--schools can increase capacity by up to 50 percent. All the tracks are never there at the same time.

In Los Angeles, 180 of the district's 650 schools are on year-round schedules.

And in North Carolina's Wake County, where enrollment has jumped by a third since 1990, year-round schooling has become increasingly popular with school officials as a way to stretch construction dollars. The 86,000-student district has built five elementary schools and two middle schools designed specifically to accommodate multitrack schooling.

The year-round schools are part of the district's magnet program, and students must apply for spaces in them.

As the county's farms and forests give way to subdivisions and shopping centers, many parents are turning to the new schools to escape overcrowding in their neighborhood schools.

They also view year-round schools as a means of avoiding the turmoil that comes with the redrawing of school-attendance boundaries--a common and always contentious part of life in fast-growing districts.

"I didn't like the uncertainty," said Carolyn Nicholson, whose two sons attend Raleigh's Effie Green Elementary School, which converted this summer to a year-round schedule. "That's a lot of stress to have in the back of your mind."

At Durant Middle School in North Raleigh, students rotate among three clusters of classrooms arrayed along a single corridor.

When each nine-week session is over and students "track out"--district lingo for the periodic three-week break--they turn over their classrooms, lockers, and even their textbooks to the group returning from vacation.

"The only thing they keep with them is their lock," Principal Thomas C. Benton said.

Hiring Proves Hard

Schools and classrooms are only part of the problem. Administrators must also find qualified teachers to staff them.

Even in districts with stable enrollment, hiring teachers in such fields as special education, math, science, and bilingual education has long been a challenge.

The problem is magnified in high-growth districts.

In Los Angeles, for example, enrollment growth coupled with a statewide effort to shrink California's swollen class sizes has sent demand for teachers soaring. The 650,000-student district recently sent recruiters to Portland, Ore., in hopes of attracting teachers who lost their jobs because of that city's budget crisis. ("Plan for Smaller Classes Sets Off Hiring Spree in Calif.," Sept. 4, 1996.)

In Nevada, the legislature has cut red tape to help school officials keep pace with runaway growth by making out-of-state teaching licenses fully valid.

With legions of veteran teachers set to retire in the near future, such difficulties are only expected to worsen. Demand for high school teachers is expected to be especially strong, primarily because of rising enrollment.

For the past decade, the number of students in kindergarten through 8th grade has marched steadily upward, from 31.2 million in 1985 to an estimated 37.3 million this year. By 2003, however, the number of grade schoolers will begin to shrink, leaving K-8 enrollment in 2006 just 2 percent higher than it is today.

High school enrollment, on the other hand, is expected to increase by 15 percent over the next 10 years, as the big bubble of elementary and middle schoolers moves on.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Education forecasts that the high school teaching force will expand to about 1.4 million by 2006, an increase of more than 16 percent. The number of K-8 teachers is expected to grow about half as fast over the same period.

Complicating Factors

Meeting the challenge posed by multitudes of new students is never simple, but some districts face complicating constraints.

Strict limits on class size or financial incentives to lower teacher-student ratios hinder growing districts in several states, notably California, Florida, and North Carolina.

Elsewhere, money is the big obstacle. In Arizona, for example, school officials have resorted in recent years to a financing mechanism known as capital-appreciation bonds to build schools. In February, however, a judge said the bonds amounted to an evasion of the state's borrowing limits.

The ruling brought construction projects in some fast-growing districts to a screeching halt.

"The growth is just completely overwhelming, and we don't know what we're going to do if we don't get some relief," said Myrna Sheppard, a school board member in Gilbert, a 20,000-student district east of Phoenix. "We have students hanging from the rafters."

Virtually all of the nation's 14,800 school districts, moreover, are subject to larger economic and demographic forces that impede efforts to respond to growth.

The proportion of people who feel a direct stake in the schools has fallen, in part due to a graying of the overall population and an increase in the percentage of people without school-age children.

In 1970, 40 percent of total U.S. households had children under 18. By 1994, the number had shrunk to 35 percent, census figures show.

And at the same time that they are dealing with an upsurge in students, many districts "have huge backlogs of deferred maintenance and are trying to modernize their infrastructure to bring in technology," Michael Resnick, the senior associate executive director of the National School Boards Association, remarked.

"All these forces coming together suggest we're in for an era where we're going to have to go to the public and ask for more bond issues," he said. "That's coming at a time when people think they don't need to pay more in taxes."

To some school officials, the only way of out of the bind will be a change in the public attitude about schools and the role they play in a community's development.

"We need to stop thinking of schools as an afterthought," said Jim Surratt, the Wake County superintendent. "We've got to start thinking of them as an integral part of the infrastructure that needs to be planned before a development gets done."

Yet for all the hardships excessive growth can bring, there are still parts of the country where educators would welcome new students with open arms.

No Boom for Some

In West Virginia, for example, enrollment has fallen for the past 20 years, bringing widespread job losses and school closings.

And like other Rust Belt cities, Lansing, Mich., has seen enrollment crumble--from more than 32,000 in the early 1970s to less than 20,000 today. Educators there are especially disheartened as students flee not only to the suburbs, but also to the charter schools that have sprung up in the city.

"That hurts even more," lamented Saturnino Rodriguez, the district's director of student services.

George Risinger, the principal of one of Wake County's new year-round schools, knows that growth has its inconveniences.

As he packed boxes in his second makeshift office in as many months, Mr. Risinger acknowledged to a recent visitor that starting classes in temporary quarters while awaiting the school's opening this summer hadn't been easy.

But Mr. Risinger, a native of West Virginia, also knows things could be worse. "People here talk about growing pains, but where I'm from people would kill to be in this situation."

"Knocking at the Doors" was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Vol. 16, Issue 02, Pages 1, 13-15

Published in Print: September 11, 1996, as Enrollment Crunch Stretches the Bounds of the Possible
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