Schools in Va. Lead Enrollment Growth

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 24, 2007

Prince William County has passed Virginia Beach and now ranks second in the state in public school enrollment. Loudoun County, as usual, had the highest rate of growth among Washington area school systems. And Fairfax County, with the region's largest system, had an unexpected influx of students.

Across the Potomac River, the two largest school systems in Maryland had stable or slightly declining student populations. Montgomery County reported a negligible dip, while Prince George's County's enrollment has slid four years in a row. The District's school system continued to bleed students to independently operated, publicly funded charter schools.

The preliminary fall enrollment figures provide a snapshot of the region's fluid demographics and the challenges facing educators. Some schools are scrambling to keep pace with growth. Others are treading water, and a few face significant population declines.

Nowhere is growth faster than in Loudoun County, which reported enrollment of nearly 54,000 on Sept. 30, according to Virginia Department of Education data. That was up more than 3,500 from the year before, a 7 percent increase. The added students are more than enough to fill a high school, middle school and elementary school. Officials had projected a more modest increase because of a softening real estate market.

"We had more student growth in absolute terms than we have had in the entire history" of the school system, said Sam C. Adamo, director of planning and legislative services for Loudoun schools. He called it "a banner year."

Prince William continued a steady population climb, reporting nearly 73,000 students, up 3 percent and edging past Virginia Beach. Growth is higher on average in western parts of the county, including Gainesville and Haymarket, said Prince William schools spokesman Ken Blackstone. The county's Hispanic student population is also rising, although at a slower pace than in recent years.

Keeping up with the rapid enrollment growth is expensive and difficult. Eleven of Prince William's schools are significantly over capacity, according to school system data. The Loudoun School Board is considering a six-year, $2.3 billion school construction plan to fund 20 new schools to meet future demand. The need for a new high school in western Loudoun is especially acute.

Fairfax, with the largest system in the state and 13th-largest in the nation, added about 1,800 students this year. The 1 percent bump surprised officials after three years of virtually flat enrollment. "We're still trying to figure it out," said Fairfax schools spokesman Paul Regnier. The growth, he said, was spread evenly across the county.

Several factors drive school enrollment, including job and housing trends, birth rates, immigration and migration patterns within and between states. Enrollment projections help officials draft budgets and construction plans and determine how many teachers and supplies will be needed.

In suburban Maryland, many school systems reported enrollment on par with the previous year or lower. The Maryland State Department of Education is still verifying numbers and will issue a report by early January.

Prince George's schools reported about 130,000 students on Sept. 30, down nearly 1,000 from the year before and down about 7,000 from a peak four years ago. Montgomery schools, larger than any other system in Maryland, still had nearly 138,000 students after enrollment dropped by about 70. In four of the previous five years, Montgomery's enrollment has been about 139,000.

Enrollment edged downward in Howard and Calvert counties and rose a bit in Frederick, Anne Arundel and Charles counties.

In Charles, with enrollment of about 26,700, the African American population grew by about 700 students. That made it the third majority-black school system in the area, after D.C. and Prince George's schools.

D.C. school officials reported preliminary enrollment of about 49,700 students, falling nearly 6 percent. For years, many students in the District have migrated toward charter schools.

The District's enrollment, which awaits verification, means the city's school system now ranks seventh in size in the region, behind Loudoun's and just ahead of Howard's.

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