Public school enrollment continues to grow in Iowa

Clear Creek Amana and Iowa City districts among state’s leaders

Published: January 23 2014 | 6:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:32 am in
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Iowa’s public school districts are responsible for educating more students in 2013-14 than in 2012-13, according to an Iowa Department of Education certified enrollment report released Wednesday.

The information shows that 478,921 kindergarten through grade 12 learners are enrolled in the state’s public schools this academic year, which is 2,676 more than the 476,245 enrolled in 2012-13. This is the second consecutive year that the population has increased and Jay Pennington, Chief of the Bureau of Information and Analysis Services for the department, attributed the growth to multiple factors including an increase in the state’s birth rates that department data shows began in 2003 and spanned through 2007.

“Certainly the uptick in births we see across the state is certainly contributing to the increase in enrollment. … I think it’s a combination of those moving from other places as well as folks who might have lived here, gone away to college and have come back to try and settle and raise a family and now we’re seeing those kids hit the school system,” Pennington said. “I think we’ll continue to see an uptick over the next five years but then it will begin to level off. It could go up or down but it will remain in about the same place as it was.”

Pennington said that the increase, which was announced just one week after the department’s 2013 Annual Condition of Education Report showed that the state’s K-12 public student population is the most ethnically diverse as it has ever been and the percentage of learners living in poverty is also ascending, is a positive development but deserves additional examination.

“It’s not just necessarily that more is better, certainly that is good news. We also need to look at who those students are,” said Pennington, who noted that prior to 2012-13 public-school enrollment has declined for 17 years straight.

Students of color as well as those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, the latter of which is used as a measure of poverty, may require additional educational support, Pennington said.

“I think that’s a key piece. We can’t make these generalizations,” he said. “We need to know more about those students, their backgrounds, where they’re coming from.”

A local look 

The Iowa City and Clear Creek Amana community school districts were singled out for being statewide leaders in student growth – excluding reorganized school systems and those with whole-grade sharing agreements — over the last academic year as well as the last five years. Since 2012-13, Clear Creek Amana has undergone the fifth-largest increase in student enrollment by percentage in the state – 8 percent – following the Seymour, Essex, Bondurant-Farrar and Postville school districts. Clear Creek Amana rises to third statewide in the same measurement since 2009-10 with a 21 percent increase, which is less than Waukee and Bondurant-Farrar, which are first and second respectively, but more than the fourth-place Woodward-Granger and fifth-ranking Pleasant Valley.

“It’s challenging but it’s good news,” said Clear Creek Amana Community School District Superintendent Tim Kuehl, who noted that the student growth is occurring on the district’s east side, in North Liberty and Tiffin. “We just need more space for our growing student population, but it’s a much more positive challenge to be dealing with than the majority of districts in Iowa which are seeing declining enrollment.”

District administrators are working to accommodate that growth. Kuehl mentioned that Clear Creek Elementary School’s fifth-graders may move to Amana Elementary School in 2014-15 because their current building does not have room for them. Staff at both Clear Creek and North Bend Elementary Schools have also repurposed building spaces, such as a faculty work room and part of the library, to become classrooms.

On Tuesday, Feb. 4, voters will head to the polls to decide on whether or not the district, which has a 2013-14 enrollment of 1,798 K-12 learners, should receive a $48 million bond referendum for building additions to house a student body that is anticipated to only get larger.

“All the projections show that we’re going to continue to grow for the next 10 to 15 years,” Kuehl said.

The Iowa City Community School District has a long path toward implementing a $258 million 10-year facilities plan, a challenge that comes with being the fifth-largest district in the state and ranking in the top-five for the amount of students added both over the last year and five years.

“Quality of life in Iowa City and the Corridor in general is high. I think that growth is a reflection of the community as a whole and that’s a wonderful thing for us,” said Iowa City Superintendent Stephen Murley.

Iowa City’s 2013-14 enrollment is 13,160, which is 386 more students than 2012-13. Only Waukee with 568 and Ankeny with 516 have added more learners since 2012-13. Des Moines, which added 351 students, and Southeast Polk, which grew by 217, rounded out the top five.

Since 2009-10, Iowa City’s student enrollment has expanded by 1,257 students, the fourth-largest growth in actual students during that timeframe. Waukee, Ankeny, and Des Moines all grew by more students and Pleasant Valley ranked right behind Iowa City.

The Iowa City district has 41 portable classrooms right now to accommodate the student population that exceeds what the school districts’ facilities can hold. Murley said his goal is to eliminate those portable classrooms by the time the facilities plan is completely enacted, though the forecast is for the district’s student enrollment to keep increasing.

“We know that we’re going to have an upwards of another 3,000 kids minimum over the next 10 years,” he said. “It could be as many as 5,000 kids. I’m a little apprehensive at planning for that right now.”

Enrollment growth is happening across the state in districts both large and small, but Pennington said the five-year numbers show a trend of people moving from rural districts to suburban and urban districts.

“We’re starting to see, looking shorter term, some of those start to buck that urban/suburban trend,” he said, noting rural districts seeing significant one-year enrollment gains.

Wednesday’s release wasn’t good news for all districts. Statewide, 53 percent of districts have seen enrollment decreases since 2012-13. That number jumps to 63 percent when assessing the last five academic years.

The Vinton-Shellsburg Community District, which has 1,584 students enrolled, has shed 214 students since 2009-10, the state’s second-largest decrease by number of students in that time. Only Clinton, which is down by 328 learners, has lost more. Council Bluffs (211 students, Newton (199 students) and Mason City (184) complete Iowa’s top five of districts with the largest decrease by actual students over the last five years.

Vinton-Shellsburg Superintendent Mary Jo Hainstock said a slow rebound from the 2008 flood is responsible for much of that decrease.

“When you have fewer houses, you have fewer people living in your district. We have not had as many new housing projects started as other communities have,” she said. “We’ve also lost houses in the community that were razed as a result of the flood in 2008. They were in the flood plain and the city bought them out (and razed them).”

That has meant staffing reductions for the district, as well as looking at spending reserve dollars, Hainstock said. Though the outlook isn’t positive, she’s confident that the quality of education in the district remains high.

“I really believe that we’re trying to focus on doing the right thing for kids, not just how do we save money,” she said. “We’re looking at what we can do and what we can influence … I think enrollment will continue to be a challenge for our district.”

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