Enrollment in Charlottesville public schools is expected to increase by more than 120 students this school year, continuing a five-year growth trend that has officials — for the first time in a long while — thinking about expanding capacity in the 4,200-student division.
From 1986 to 2011, city school enrollment dropped by 863 students. Since 2011, the city has gained back 417 of those students, said Assistant Superintendent Ed Gillaspie.
That growth leaves little room in city elementary schools, complicating a six-year-old plan for a city-wide grade reconfiguration, officials said. Reconfiguration was first floated after a 2009 city efficiency study recommended closing an elementary school.
The plan, which the School Board endorsed in 2010, would see Walker Upper Elementary and Buford Middle combined into one campus for grades six through eight, and fifth grade returning to neighborhood elementary schools.
“I don’t believe Charlottesville has engaged in issues with capacity, and a lack of capacity, in the last 20 or 25 years,” Superintendent Rosa Atkins told the board at a recent meeting. “When we started talking about reconfiguration, it was because we had been through the efficiency review and we had excess capacity.”
At the meeting, School Board member Sherry Kraft brought up reconfiguration during a presentation of a preliminary report on possible capital improvement projects at Walker Upper Elementary. Kraft asked if possible renovations to Walker would preclude reconfiguration.
“I asked the question pretty innocently, not really knowing anything more, thinking that reconfiguration is still part of the plan for the district,” she said. “If it isn’t, we are going to have to have some conversations with our community and our City Council.”
All of the city’s elementary schools have their highest enrollment numbers in more than a decade. At Greenbrier and Venable elementaries, student populations are at their highest levels since the 1980s.
“We have the highest enrollment at Greenbrier since before 1986, I just don’t have records that go back that far,” Gillaspie said.
If the trend continues, the schools will need to find classroom capacity, either through building additions or rethinking how current spaces are used.
Amy Laufer, chairwoman of the School Board, said she wants to hear the council’s plan for future housing development before the board holds any talks or makes any decisions.
“We need to know from them what the expectations are of those developments in terms of how many units, etc.,” she said. “I think there are more issues that are going to be more urgent to talk with City Council about, in terms of more developments and projections of less money from the state.”
The next step for schools staff, Gillaspie said, will be to conduct a capacity study to look for a growth pattern.
“One of the things that we are going to recommend is that we … look at all of our schools and try to get a handle on where we think growth is going to take place,” he said.
Figuring how much growth to expect once a cohort enters elementary school is pretty simple, Gillaspie said, but getting a handle on growth before children enter kindergarten is much tougher.
“I have looked at birth data in the city to see if there is a correlation to how many kindergarteners then enroll, and there is none,” he said. “So, it is really, really difficult to try and get your arms around any kind of long-term trend or pattern, at least when it comes to what I have seen.”