Predicting enrollment changes no easy task
School districts continually are trying to predict how many students they will serve in the future. It doesn’t always work out well.
“We’d like to think it’s an exact science, but it’s not,” said Marlin Berry, superintendent of the Rogers School District.
Rogers is a prime example of how projections aren’t always reliable.
The School Board voted unanimously in June to decline about $2.3 million from the state’s Academic Facilities Partnership Program to help pay for construction of another elementary school.
The district would have had to complete the building project within four years to qualify for that state aid. The board agreed with administrators Rogers had no need for another school within that time frame based on projections showing a slight decline in elementary-level enrollment over the next five years.
On Oct. 1, however, Rogers elementary schools counted 7,367 students, an increase of 287, or 4 percent, from one year earlier and 163 more than the district’s projection. Total district enrollment was 222 more than projected.
Berry and the board discussed the situation several times before the board voted last week to ask voters for a 3.5-mill property tax increase that would pay for two more elementary schools, both of which are expected to cost about $ 18 million. It also would provide money for technology, renovation of older campuses and security improvements.
The millage election will be May 9. The Bentonville School District will seek a 1.9-mill tax increase on the same day.
Berry, who joined Rogers as superintendent in July, said it would be nice to have a “doover” of the board’s vote on the state partnership money.
“I believe that money is gone now for that cycle,” he said.
Berry admitted it’s awkward to be in a position where the district is now hoping to open its next elementary school in 2019 less than a year after saying it didn’t need one. But he’s not complaining about the decision made by the board and previous administration under Superintendent Janie Darr.
“I don’t know all of the conversation that went into that, but I do believe at that time they probably made an OK decision,” he said.
Darr said the formula the district used to make its projections was one that had served the district well for many years.
“It was a very good model and the predictions were always right on track,” Darr said. “I can’t tell you what happened with this year’s elementary students.”
The district’s enrollment increase of 322 students this school year comes one year after the district saw growth of only 50 students. Berry wasn’t sure what led to the enrollment spike.
“I think it’s one of those ‘all of the above’ situations,” he said. “I think it’s new housing, I think it’s an economy that’s coming back even more. I think it’s the attraction of Northwest Arkansas. I think it’s the Rogers School District.”
Berry is familiar with school growth issues, having spent six years as superintendent of the Olathe, Kan., School District, before coming to Rogers. Olathe’s enrollment grew nearly 2,000 students during that time.
Calculating how enrollment will change begins by applying a “retention ratio” to the current students and figuring out how many kindergartners will be entering versus how many seniors are graduating. What’s much harder to predict is how many students will be moving into the district, Berry said.
A careful study of new subdivisions can provide some insight as to who might be moving in, depending on the expected prices of those homes. An upscale subdivision, for example, is more likely to attract families with older children, Berry said.
“A good planner can take a look at a subdivision and project how many kids we’re going to gain from that as the houses come on,” Berry said.
The next elementary school Rogers plans to open will be in the fast- growing southwest part of the district, served now by three elementary schools: Darr, Tucker and Bellview.
There are 900 lots or plats with roads in the Darr Elementary boundary area, 21 lots in Tucker’s zone and 20 in Bellview’s zone. Another 84 lots are available in the neighboring Jones Elementary zone, according to Berry.
Berry also wants to take a closer look at the “in loco parentis” children — those moving to Rogers to live with a grandparent or other family member because their parents are unable to care for them.
Those students “aren’t on retention ratios, aren’t on projections, aren’t based on housing. Those are based on unfortunate family situations,” he said.
Kathy Deck , a University of Arkansas economist and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research, said Northwest Arkansas is poised to continue growing.
“From my perspective, population growth in Northwest Arkansas is directly related to the economic vitality of the region.”
— Kathy Deck, economist
Job growth, though expected to be less dynamic than it was last year, should remain strong this year, she said.
Job growth attracts more people, which means more children filling the schools, Deck said.
“From my perspective, population growth in Northwest Arkansas is directly related to the economic vitality of the region,” Deck said. “The reason we’ve had such great growth in the area is because of the enormous prosperity the region has had. There is nothing on the horizon that throws the brakes on that.”
The Bentonville School District has experienced heavier enrollment growth in the past several years than Rogers has. Bentonville’s growth rate from one year to the next has ranged between 1.4 percent and 5.4 percent over the last five years.
Bentonville hired a California firm in 2013 to conduct a demographics study to help district officials understand precisely where the growth was occurring and how much of it to expect over the next decade. That kind of data helps identify where and when a growing school district should be building new schools.
Officials continue to use the data from that study but also are doing research of their own, said Tanya Sharp, executive director of student services.
“Looking at our cities that our boundary takes in, we look at building permits, subdivisions planned,” Sharp said. “We work with those city officials to determine the growth they are seeing and the new building they are seeing within their communities.”
Centerton and the south portion of Bentonville’s district are growing particularly quickly. The district is predicting 3.5 percent enrollment growth each year for the next decade, she said.
Bentonville’s enrollment increased by 550 students this year. The district had projected between 450 and 475 additional students this year, Sharp said.
Administrators keep an eye on enrollment throughout the year, comparing numbers with the same dates in previous Jared years. Cleveland, deputy superintendent of Springdale schools, said Springdale takes a “really good, educated guess” when it comes to projecting enrollment, helped in part by data provided by the transportation department’s Robert Guadagnini, whom Cleveland called a “genius” when it comes to projections.
“We map out where each child mapping lives, out, and we throughget some that extra data the transportation department doesn’t really use, but it helps me with our data to help with those educated guesses,” Cleveland said. “It shows where we are growing, how many rooftops are being built here, how many there.” The local birth rate, housing permits and the region’s overall population projections also factor into the district’s projections, Cleveland said. Complicating matters somewhat is the increase of open-enrollment charter schools in the region. Such schools can accept any student who lives in Arkansas. The School Choice Act allows students to enroll in a district other than the one in which they live, assuming the receiving district has room for them. The state also has a voucher system that allows students with special needs to apply up to $6,646 of state money per year toward tuition and fees at an approved private school.
“In the end, when you have all those variables, how do you project enrollment over the next few years?” Cleveland said. “There’s a whole lot to it.”
The Fayetteville School District’s growth rate has hovered between 1 percent and 3 percent per year the past five years. The district is in the process of hiring a demographer to conduct a new study that will provide some updated projections soon, said Alan Wilbourn, a district spokesman.
“We’ve been pretty steady, but we want to know if that’s going to hold,” Wilbourn said.
Fifth-graders Palmer Jurgensmeyer (from left), 11, Tuff Schureman, 10, Lily Still, 10, and Jai Gandhi, 11, finish their math assignment Thursday at Bellview Elementary School in Rogers. Bellview has received a lot of overflow students from other elementary schools filled to capacity.
Donna Farley, fifth-grade teacher, talks Thursday with Seth Fulfer, 11, about his math assignment at Bellview Elementary School in Rogers. Bellview has received a lot of overflow students from other elementary schools filled to capacity.