WAKE FOREST — If Wake Countys public schools could be described in one word, it might be: Full.
With more than 151,000 students, Wake is the largest and one of the fastest-growing systems in the state. Next year, taxpayers may be asked to approve $1 billion in borrowing to pay for more schools.
But as schools opened Monday, that crush was curiously absent at the systems newest school, Richland Creek Elementary. The Wake Forest school has a shortage of students.
The school, actually a collection of temporary modular buildings until the new building opens in 2014, holds 368 students. It opened Monday with 97, making Wakes newest school also its smallest. The enrollment is so low that several modular units at the campus are closed.
My job is to get the school ready for the kids, said Tammie Sexton, Richland Creeks principal. I left it up to the school system to get the kids here.
The low turnout is an unexpected byproduct of the districts switch this year to a new student assignment plan. The change allowed families to request a school instead of being assigned to one. Without direct assignment, school officials couldnt automatically fill new schools.
Nonetheless, administrators thought families would flock to new schools. But they didnt count on so many families saying no to attending classes on a modular campus consisting of temporary structures strung together.
The demand was so low that the opening of a second modular school, Abbotts Creek Elementary in North Raleigh, is being delayed until 2013.
But there are those who like how Richland Creek is so small that class sizes are in the teens.
Im looking forward to being in a small school and a new school, said Nichole Faulkner, president of Richland Creeks PTA and the parent of Harrison, 5, a kindergarten student.
Under the choice plan being used this year, families requested where they wanted to attend from a list of school choices. The Democratic-led school board majority told district administrators to develop a new plan for the 2013-14 school year that goes back to tying addresses to specific schools.
Only 34 students were registered for Richland Creek as of June.
Administrators recommended going ahead with the opening of the school, saying it would provide needed seats in the Wake Forest area. An influx of newcomers over the summer was routed to the school, nearly tripling the enrollment.
Nate Tyler moved from Florida in June to attend the nearby Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
We kind of fell in love with being at a new school and helping create a culture, said Tyler, whose 6-year-old son, Micah, is a first-grader.
One possible reason that few families requested Richland Creek is that its permanent building wont be ready until the 2014-15 school year. For the next two years, students will go to class in modular classroom buildings located at the DuBois Center.
Even though Richland Creek wasnt the first choice for most of the families, parents say theyre happy with the school.
We werent sure at first about going to a modular building, said David Kerr, who relocated from Kentucky to attend the seminary. But everyone has been wonderful. Were excited about it.
Kerrs son, Sam, 9, is a fourth-grader at the school.
Initially, the plan was to start Richland Creek with kindergarten through third-grade. But when so few students applied, Sexton agreed to offer fourth- and fifth-grades to keep families who didnt want to send their children to two elementary schools.
Larry Sutt said hes trying to talk his wife out of pulling their daughter, Alina, out of kindergarten at Richland Creek to go to a private school.
Were ready to go, Sutt said. Shell be fine here.
Richland Creek picked up enough students to drop plans to have multi-age classes of students in different grades. But Sexton said class sizes are still small enough that many have just 15 or 16 students.
Adam Robertson, a second-grade teacher, only has 13 students in his class. Im going to enjoy it while I can, he said.
The situation could end as early as next school year when Wake likely goes back to reassigning students to fill schools. This could mean an influx of new students into Richland Creek.
I told the teachers to enjoy it while it lasts, Sexton said.