Public school enrollment tops 87,000

Public school enrollment tops 87,000

Springdale’s Hellstern Middle School is home to about 1,000 sixth- and seventh-graders. That’s almost as many as the building can handle.

The school uses commons areas for health classes and gifted and talented classes. When a flu-shot clinic came in last month, it had to be done in the front lobby because there wasn’t an open room available, said Principal Allison Byford.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK Aleah Lobaton, a sixth grade student at Hellstern Middle School, collects data Thursday, November 1, 2018, from measuring a stuffed animal in Tammy Cartmell’s math class at the school in Springdale. The Arkansas Department of Education recently published public school enrollment data from Oct. 1.

“Every nook and cranny is used,” Byford said.

Springdale, like several other Northwest Arkansas school districts, is feeling the pressure of increasing enrollment. It became the state’s largest district this year with 21,962 students as of Oct. 1, surpassing the Little Rock School District by nearly 400 students.

Springdale’s enrollment grew by a relatively modest 0.6 percent from last fall, but it’s up by more than 25 percent in the last 10 years.

There were 87,360 students enrolled in public schools in Benton and Washington counties as of Oct. 1, a 1.6 percent increase compared to the same date a year earlier, according to the Arkansas Department of Education. Statewide enrollment in public schools on Oct. 1 was 478,318, a decrease of 0.2 percent from last year.

The annual October count for Arkansas school systems, including charter schools, is considered the official enrollment for the year and a harbinger of state funding levels for the next school year. State funding for a district is based on the average kindergarten through 12th-grade enrollment in the first three quarters of the preceding school year.

Enrollments on the rise

Three of Northwest Arkansas’ 15 traditional public school districts grew by at least 3 percent this year over last: Fayetteville, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove.

Prairie Grove had the largest gain by percentage at 4.1 percent, putting its total at 1,996. Bentonville led the region in number of students added with 355, followed closely by Fayetteville with 317.

Fayetteville has added students for 11 years straight at an average rate of 1.9 percent per year. Its growth of 3.2 percent this year is its highest rate in five years.

Fayetteville likely will continue to see growth. There were about 2,131 home sales in the district in 2017, about 15 percent of which were new homes, according to Bob Templeton, president of Templeton Demographics, which did a study recently for the district.

The greatest pressure is on the elementary level. Enrollment is expected to surpass capacity at four of Fayetteville’s nine elementary schools by 2020, according to Templeton’s projections.

Bentonville’s growth rate this year was slower than it’s been in recent years, but still exceeded 2 percent. Three of its 11 elementary schools — Central Park, Elm Tree and Jones — are over capacity, and Elm Tree is overflowing 10 students to neighboring schools. Bentonville is opening a 12th elementary school next fall.

Public charter school enrollment in Northwest Arkansas continues to grow. There were 3,268 students enrolled in the four open-enrollment charter school districts on Oct. 1, a 25 percent increase from last fall and a 116 percent increase from five years ago.

Charter enrollment makes up 3.7 percent of public-school enrollment in the two counties. Five years ago it was 1.9 percent. Not included in these numbers are students attending one of Arkansas’ two virtual schools: Arkansas Virtual Academy and Arkansas Connections Academy, which enroll about 3,600 students combined from throughout the state.

Despite the increased number of students enrolling in charter schools, there are no plans to open additional charters in Northwest Arkansas. The Charter Authorizing Panel this year denied a group’s application to open Focus Academy of Arts and Sciences in Bentonville; the group proposed serving as many as 900 students in kindergarten through eighth grades.

Declining numbers

Greenland, Lincoln and West Fork — all districts in Washington County — saw the largest decreases in enrollment this year.

In West Fork, enrollment remained relatively steady until about five years ago. This year’s enrollment of 961 is down 3 percent from last year and nearly 20 percent from 2013. It’s a troubling trend for Superintendent John Karnes.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with what we’re doing wrong, because we’re doing so many good things,” Karnes said. “I think we’re in a situation where we have a shortage of affordable housing. If something comes open, it’s gone in a day. That is killing us down here in West Fork.”

Residential and commercial development likely will come to West Fork if infrastructure, like access to sewer and water, is improved, he said.

The district in the meantime is trying harder to promote the good things happening in the schools. Taylor Karnes, John Karnes’ son, is a business and computer science teacher at the high school. He gets one period during the day to promote the district through social media and other means.

John Karnes is heartened by the fact students from outside the district — most of them from Greenland — are choosing to come to West Fork schools. About 22 percent of West Fork’s enrollment during the 2016-17 school year was students who lived outside the district. The average for the state was 2.9 percent.

Despite dwindling enrollment, the district has maintained financial stability and has managed to downsize its staff through attrition, Karnes said.

Lincoln’s enrollment fell by 40 students to 1,129, a 3.4 percent decrease from last year. That’s the lowest Lincoln has been in at least 15 years and it’s not expected to improve soon, said Superintendent Mary Ann Spears.

Staffing is locked in for the rest of the school year, but Lincoln will be taking a hard look at its projected numbers and making adjustments accordingly, she said.

“We’ll have to reduce costs for sure,” Spears said.

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