Politics & Government

Enrollment caps are now up at 21 Wake schools. See which schools are affected.

Classrooms on carts: NC class-size rules mean some teachers have no room of their own

North Carolina elementary schools are facing tough choices to find enough classrooms to meet smaller state-mandated K-3 class sizes. At Sycamore Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, several elective teachers lost their classrooms and now carry thei
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North Carolina elementary schools are facing tough choices to find enough classrooms to meet smaller state-mandated K-3 class sizes. At Sycamore Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, several elective teachers lost their classrooms and now carry thei

More than 20 Wake County schools, including some that opened in the past few years, will be put under enrollment limits this fall that prevent some newly arriving families from attending them.

The Wake County school board approved Tuesday a plan to put 21 schools under enrollment caps, meaning families who move into their attendance areas after a certain date face being sent to a more distant school that has space. Among the schools being capped are Oakview Elementary in Holly Springs, which opened in 2016, and Hortons Creek Elementary in Cary, which opened in 2017.

All but three of the capped schools are elementary schools. Wake school leaders blamed much of the need for the caps on how state lawmakers are requiring districts to reduce K-3 class sizes.

Enrollment caps are a way for the school system to try to shift the burden of dealing with overcrowded families onto newcomers instead of reassigning existing students out of schools. This school year, more than 1,100 Wake students were capped out of their closest schools.

“I think we all agree that capping is not efficient,” said school board chairman Jim Martin. “It’s something that we would like to minimize, but unfortunately it’s a tool that we have to exercise.”

Wake has to deal with how the average K-3 class size in North Carolina will drop from 20 students this year to 19 children in the fall and 18 students in 2020. It’s scheduled to drop in 2021 to a maximum of 16 to 18 students in a class, depending on the grade level.

Republican state lawmakers say the smaller K-3 class sizes will help improve academic performance. But school districts complain that it will be difficult finding the teachers and the classroom space to meet the smaller class sizes.

Some of the capped Wake schools are already taking steps such as putting two teachers in the same room and are using undersized classrooms. To free up enough teachers in the younger grades, some schools are seeing class sizes of 29 or more students in fourth- and fifth-grades.

“This is a frustrating thing for me to be voting on this evening,” said school board member Christine Kushner.

Kushner said that Wake should seek flexibility for the class sizes from state lawmakers.

Caps are being kept on 13 elementary schools: Baileywick, Cedar Fork, Combs, Fuquay-Varina, Harris Creek, Holly Grove, Mills Park, Olive Chapel, Rogers Lane, Scotts Ridge, Sycamore Creek, Vance and Willow Springs. Caps are also being maintained at Mills Park Middle School and Heritage and Panther Creek high schools.

Five elementary schools are getting new enrollment caps in 2019: Highcroft Drive, Hortons Creek, Oakview, Weatherstone and Yates Mill.

Last week, administrators had also recommended keeping the enrollment caps at Carpenter and Wendell elementary schools, Reedy Creek Middle and Fuquay-Varina High. But after board members raised concerns, administrators reversed the recommendation.

Wake saw its smallest enrollment growth in more than 30 years, growing by only 42 students this year instead of the 1,898 newcomers projected. It’s part of a slowdown in growth in which planners project Wake will only grow by 3,800 students over the next decade.

Wake County school board chairman Jim Martin says Wake is a "different county" now to explain why the school district is only projected to grow by 3,800 students between 2018 and 2028. Wake used to grow by more than 3,800 students in a single year.

Martin said the overall slowdown in the district’s growth doesn’t take away from how some areas are still overcrowded.

“We have regional growth which results in some of the capping,” Martin said. “And the other reason we have to worry about the capping is the K-3 class size legislation, both of which require us to maintain a number of caps.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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