The return of students Monday at year-round schools could mark the beginning of massive growth in the Wake County school system.
Wake already has 151,487 students registered for the 2012-13 school year, 1,000 more than projected. The 4,800 new students for the school year that begins Monday, not counting those still to register, is the most growth Wake has had since 2007, before the recession hit.
For school leaders, the prospect of 5,000 or more students this fall means Wake may be returning sooner than expected to last decades breakneck growth. Wake grew by more than 7,500 students in 2006, before the recession brought growth down to more manageable numbers of fewer than 4,000 new students annually.
Were still in all the best-places-to-live lists, said Judy Peppler, who oversees student assignment as Wakes chief transformation officer. Were still the place to be.
Michael Walden, an economist at N.C. State University, said the local economy is rebounding.
Wake County is recovering much better than were seeing in other areas, Walden said. The Raleigh-Cary metro area has added jobs at rates above the rest of the region.
To help build more schools to keep up with growth, the school system may ask county commissioners to put a new-school construction bond referendum on the ballot in the spring or fall of 2013.
While some of the growth is real, it wont be known until after classes begin how much of the influx reflects people trying to game the new choice plan.
Before the choice plan, each address was assigned to a specific school. This meant that a family choosing to leave a private school or charter school would know its public-school assignment.
But under the choice plan, addresses are no longer tied to a specific school. Instead, families ranked where they want to go from a list of school options.
Numbers hard to pinpoint
Peppler said theyre uncertain how many families who intend to attend a private school, charter school or home school may have registered with Wake to see if they could get a particular school in the choice plan.
Wake has asked families who registered but who dont plan to attend this fall to notify the district. But families arent required to give that notification.
Another unanticipated effect of the choice plan is how it has affected the systems ability to fill and open new schools. New schools are opening with far fewer students than they would have in the past while others are increasingly crowded. A new elementary school opening in August, for instance, only has 34 students registered while other campuses have set up temporary classrooms to accommodate an overflow of students.
In the past, Wake reassigned areas when faced with empty seats at new schools. But with the choice plan, it has been a case of seeing who chooses to attend.
One of the things about choice is people get to pick the school they want, Peppler said.
One of the new schools opening Monday, Rolesville Middle School, has 511 students. Peppler said school officials are pleased with the figure because its more than they expected for the schools first year.
In comparison, the last two new middle schools opened by Wake in 2010 had about 1,000 students assigned to them.
Empty elementary schools
Wake had more problems filling two new elementary schools scheduled to open this year.
Abbotts Creek Elementary School in North Raleigh only had six students apply. Its opening is being delayed to next year because staff say there are enough seats at nearby schools to keep up with demand for now.
Richland Creek Elementary in Wake Forest only has 34 students. But Peppler said the school is opening in August because of crowding at the schools near Richland Creek.
We didnt want to have a situation where we didnt have the capacity for students in the area, she said.
Staff has said both new elementary schools may have attracted few students because theyre opening in modular classrooms. Their brick-and-mortar buildings wont be ready for a few years.
Richland Creek has so few students the state isnt picking up part of the cost of the principals salary.
Peppler said officials still hope to get 150 students at Richland Creek at some point this school year. But for now, she said the school will combine its 34 registered students into small classes with multiple grades.
Staff has told us that we need to open it and move forward with it, so Im fine with it, said school board member Chris Malone, a supporter of the choice plan.
Even with the new schools holding fewer students than before, Peppler said theyve got enough capacity for the upcoming school year.
School board chairman Kevin Hill said the problems filling the new schools is one reason that they need to move back to a plan that ties individual addresses to specific schools. Last month, the school board directed staff to develop an address-based plan for the 2013-14 school year.
Peppler said staff members are working on how to combine the best elements of the choice plan with the old assignment plan. In addition, she said, officials are trying to develop a plan to grandfather students whose families made choices for the 2012-13 school year.
We fully intend to bring a plan to the board in September, Peppler said.