Education

Wake County is now the 15th largest school district in the country

Students crowd a stairway as classes change at Heritage High School in Wake Forest. The Wake County school system has now become the 15th largest school district in the nation and the 13th largest in the continental United States.
Students crowd a stairway as classes change at Heritage High School in Wake Forest. The Wake County school system has now become the 15th largest school district in the nation and the 13th largest in the continental United States. 2015 News & Observer file photo

Growth has slowed in recent years, but the Wake County school system is now the 15th largest school district in the nation and the 13th largest in the continental United States.

Wake County moved into 15th place ahead of the Dallas Independent School District by adding 2,369 students this school year to reach an enrollment of 159,549 students. Student enrollment has nearly tripled since 1980, causing Wake to rapidly ascend the list of the nation’s largest school systems.

“What it indicates is that Wake County continues to grow and the quality of the school system is the key factor in that growth,” said school board member Bill Fletcher. “People looking to move here look at the quality of our schools.”

Wake was the 40th largest school district in the nation with 73,263 students when Fletcher was first elected to the school board in 1993.

Wake remains the largest school system in North Carolina. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system is the next largest district in the state and the 18th largest in the nation.

Growth in Wake has led to challenges such as reassigning students to fill new schools and to reduce crowding, placing enrollment restrictions on overcrowded schools and adding large numbers of trailers on some campuses.

“Growth presents its challenges,” said Fletcher, chairman of the board’s facilities committee. “I would rather be in a situation of trying to deal with growth than dealing with empty schools.”

But competition from charter schools, private schools and home schools means the district is now growing by around 2,000 students a year instead of by 3,000 students or more as in the past. The combination of slower growth and the opening of eight new Wake schools in the past two years has helped ease some of the pressure on the district.

Wake is reducing the number of schools under enrollment caps from 15 this year to 10 for the 2017-18 school year. Fewer schools will face enrollment restrictions that result in newly arriving families being kept out and sent to more distant schools that have space.

This school year, 14 percent of Wake students are taking classes in temporary classrooms such as trailers, storage closets and media centers. That’s down from 20.6 percent in 2005 and 16.9 percent four years ago.

Earlier this year, the school board and the Wake County Board of Commissioners agreed on a seven-year, $1.98 billion school construction program to keep up with the latest round of growth. The plan is supposed to be updated annually with the next school construction bond referendum potentially coming on the May 2018 ballot.

Fletcher said the new planning process will allow county leaders to more quickly react to growth and make adjustments.

Christina Lighthall, the school system’s senior director of facilities planning, said updated enrollment projections are scheduled to be presented to the facilities committee in January.

“We’re seeing sustained growth in our resident live births after seeing years of negative growth,” Lighthall said. “Obviously we’re a very attractive community. We’re looking at growth, and we’re growing daily.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

Growing Wake County school system

Over the past 20 years, the Wake County school system has added 74,010 students and grown by 87 percent.

Year

Enrollment

1996

85,539

2001

101,397

2006

128,072

2011

146,687

2016

159,549

Source: Wake County Public School System

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