Wake County schools see biggest growth since recession

khui@newsobserver.comApril 3, 2014 

The Wake County school system has grown by nearly 3,800 students this school year – the largest increase since before the economic downturn that began in late 2007.

School officials say Wake now has 153,300 students, compared with last year’s official enrollment of 149,508 pupils. This year’s gain of 3,792 students is the biggest since the district added 5,930 students in the 2007-08 school year.

The growth comes as school leaders build 16 new schools that will be funded from an $810 million school construction bond issue approved by voters in October.

“We’ve been a growing school system,” school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said Thursday. “The community recognized that when the bond issue was passed. There is a clear need for more school seats.”

This school year’s 2.5 percent increase in student enrollment comes as Wake County and the Triangle are growing as well.

Wake, Durham and Harnett counties were among eight counties in the state that grew by more than 2 percent in the year that ended in July, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Wake grew by 2.3 percent, to 974,289 residents.

The Raleigh-Cary metropolitan area – composed of Wake, Johnston and Franklin counties – was the 11th fastest-growing in the nation since the 2010 census, according to the Census Bureau.

There was also growth in charter-school enrollment. There are 6,768 Wake County students attending charter schools around the state, 539 more than last school year.

Figures for the number of Wake County students enrolled in home schools and private schools this school year won’t be available until the summer. Last school year, the district educated 82.9 percent of the county’s school-age children, a share that has remained relatively constant for the past decade.

‘Area has fully recovered’

Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University, said the school system’s growth is another sign of how much the Triangle has recovered from the recession. He said the school district should continue to expect strong enrollment growth.

“The economy has been in a recovery,” he said. “This area has fully recovered.”

Before the recession, which the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research says began December 2007 and ended June 2009, Wake was growing by more than 7,000 students a year.

The recession and the slow recovery from it reduced the rate of growth. Wake has added 19,000 students since the 2007-08 school year.

Walden says the Triangle recovered faster than the rest of the state and the nation. As a reflection of the recovery, school and community leaders successfully argued that the fall bond issue was needed, pointing to enrollment projections that Wake could have 171,915 students by 2018.

“Families and others move here because they value Wake County as a great place to live,” Kushner said. “Part of that is we have great public schools.”

School officials traditionally announce the official enrollment for the school year in the fall. But enrollment figures were delayed by problems with the state’s new PowerSchool data system.

Wake school officials say they and the state recently agreed that 153,300 would be the district’s official enrollment figure.

Wake remains the largest school system in North Carolina. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system is second in the state with 142,612 students, adding 1,441 children this school year.

No. 16 in nation

Wake remains the 16th largest school system in the nation, behind the Dallas Independent School District, which reports having 159,713 students. But Wake and Dallas report their totals differently.

Wake only includes kindergarten through high school in its official enrollment, excluding the nearly 2,100 students in the pre-kindergarten program. Dallas includes the 9,776 students in pre-kindergarten and early childhood education in its enrollment. Wake has more K-12 students than Dallas.

As Wake deals with another round of growth, Kushner said district leaders can’t let it distract the system from student achievement. Some school leaders have said that the district’s efforts to keep up with the most recent wave of booming growth took the focus away from academics as student assignment consumed much of their time.

“We need to do our due diligence on student assignment,” Kushner said. “But we need to keep our focus on student learning.”

News researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this report.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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