Arlington School Enrollment Rise Defies Expectations

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006

For the first time in four years, enrollment in Arlington County public schools is up slightly, according to statistics released by the school system.

As of Sept. 30, 18,451 students were enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade -- 40 more than last year, and 199 more than projected. Most of the growth was among kindergartners.

Enrollment projections had predicted that with county housing costs rising and family size shrinking, enrollment would decrease by about 300 students a year.

"This year was kind of a bumper crop," said Alison Denton, facilities planner for the school system. "We had a lot more kindergartners than expected. . . . They're kind of a wild card because they're not in the system before."

Alexandria, which had 10,057 students as of Sept. 30, has also seen enrollment decline in recent years. But although the city reported a slightly larger decline this year than expected, the number of kindergartners was higher than projected, and three kindergarten teachers were hired to meet the demand.

For school systems, lower enrollment can mean less government funding. But an unexpected increase in students can also be hard on schools. To meet the demands of 117 more kindergartners than were expected, Arlington had to hire 15 new teachers and shuffle four within the existing staff. "We had to rearrange the staffing," Denton said.

Schools officials said they were not sure whether the unexpected increase was a blip or the beginning of an upward trend.

One reason for the expected decline was that Arlington has lost a large amount of moderately priced housing -- Denton said its supply of affordable housing dropped by half from 2000 to 2005 -- as modest rental apartments have been converted into expensive condominiums. The trend has driven many low-income families out of the county.

The school system also bases enrollment projections on the number of births in the county five years earlier, and that number did not indicate there would be a surge this year, Superintendent Robert G. Smith said.

"What I've heard anecdotally is that more families than before, as their child or second child reaches school age, are not looking necessarily to leave Arlington and are not looking for larger homes in the west and the south" of the county, he said

Smith theorized about why families might be deciding to stay put: "One, it could be that people don't want to fight the traffic. Two, they're sitting on gold mines if they own their houses and they don't want to lose that." A third reason, he said, could be the schools' good reputation.

The increase was not equally distributed throughout the county. Most of the surge came in North Arlington; South Arlington schools continued to lose students. Nottingham Elementary School experienced the most growth, with 63 more students than last year. It added one kindergarten class to accommodate the influx.

Smith said it is too early to predict what might happen next year, although projections show enrollment declining.

But, he added, "if we get another year like this year, with the same size population or a slight increase, then it would really begin to change the projection line."

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