Public schools embrace growth

October 30th, 2017

By Ashley Sloboda | The Journal Gazette

The numbers vary by district, but they reflect a shared trend: Allen County's public schools are educating more students this academic year than last.

And it can be difficult for officials to pinpoint the reasons why.

The enrollment gains range from 140 more students in Fort Wayne Community Schools to 236 more students in East Allen County Schools.

East Allen Superintendent Marilyn Hissong said it's exciting to watch the numbers come in. Although this year's count of 9,688 students falls short of the more than 10,000 students the district served about a decade ago, enrollment has been climbing in recent years.

“We are hoping that we have continued growth,” she said.

Various factors – including families moving in from out of state, students leaving parochial schools and general residential growth – can contribute to enrollment gains, administrators said.

Generally, officials said, growth is good news for school districts – and not only because schools receive per-pupil funding.

“Certainly, it shows that our school districts are working hard to serve all of their students well,” said Isabel Nuñez, professor and chair of IPFW's Department of Educational Studies.

During periods of declining enrollments, families might wonder why students are leaving and whether they should also send their children elsewhere, FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.

The increase at Fort Wayne Community Schools this fall to 29,612 students followed three years of losses, from 30,980 students in 2013-14 to 29,472 students in 2016-17.

This year's reversal – along with the growth at neighboring districts – counters a nationwide narrative that public schools aren't doing well, Stockman said.

“It really shows that people do see us as a viable and vibrant school district,” she said.

Challenges, however, can accompany growth. Schools might face physical limitations as well as staffing issues, especially with the current teacher shortage, Nuñez said.

“The ability of a district to be flexible and creative in its approach to enrollment growth would depend on the support of the community,” particularly if it needs to put a bond measure on the ballot, she said.

Using mobile classrooms, temporary buildings and quick construction to expand existing schools help districts manage growth, she said. Those approaches can be good when the long-term enrollment trend is unclear.

Projecting future enrollments can be difficult because demographic studies don't account for everything that might affect enrollment, administrators said. At Northwest Allen County Schools, for example, enrollment at the elementary level is already outpacing projections of a study completed last fall.

Schools might also manage growth by maximizing class sizes without compromising quality, Nuñez said.

Maintaining optimal student-teacher ratios is important to Southwest Allen County Schools, even as this fall brought the largest student increase in the past 11 years.

Administrators told the school board this month that enrollment appears to be up 174 students for a total of 7,342 students.

Most of the growth (153 students) happened at the elementary level, where the preferred class size starts at about 20 students, Superintendent Phil Downs said. Targets vary by grade level.

The SACS community has expectations regarding class size – it overwhelmingly supported a staffing referendum in 2016 – and the district works to honor that, he said.

The past 10 years have brought slow, manageable growth to the district, creating classroom space in former computer labs when needed.

Yet construction could be in the district's future. Administrators have raised the possibility of expanding Lafayette Meadows Elementary School and conducting major renovations to Homestead High School. The latter has enough classrooms, administrators said, but communal spaces such as the cafeteria, auditorium, gymnasium and hallways have become too small.

“We've outgrown a lot of that building,” Downs said.

Growth in Northwest Allen might lead to a new elementary school, the district's eighth.

NACS' enrollment increased by 209 students this fall, bringing its total from 7,325 to 7,534, according to information presented to the school board this month.

Both Southwest and Northwest Allen have broached the possibility of addressing building needs through a referendum, but neither school board has acted on the issue.

During informational sessions two years ago, East Allen taxpayers brought up several concerns, including overcrowding at Leo and Cedarville elementary schools and classes being held in double-wide trailers at Southwick Elementary.

Now, construction is a common sight throughout East Allen as it makes improvements under a $87.5 million building program that proceeded without a November 2016 ballot challenge. Hissong credits the school board for its planning, which also includes additional elementary school classrooms.

For FWCS, this fall's enrollment increase created few problems.

“We have more students, but it's not at such a rate that we need to hire a lot more staff or somehow find new classrooms for a huge influx of students,” Stockman said. “When it's spread out, it's a lot more manageable to deal with that growth.”

If capacity ever does become an issue, she said, that will be a “good problem to have.”