Student growth slows but student needs have not

When N.C. public schools report their 20th day enrollment today, many will have fewer students than expected. That's especially true for the state's two biggest school districts – Wake County Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Enrollment is still growing but not at the soaring rates it has over much of the last decade. Wake had reached only half its projected increase of 6,000 students last week. Enrollment last year was 134,002 students. Earlier this year, district officials projected it would zoom to 140,443 but downgraded it to 139,247 over the summer. A week ago, the student population stood at 137,601.

Similarly Charlotte-Mecklenburg has seen slower growth. Officials had expected about 2,900 new students this year, for a total of more than 135,000 students. But CMS, the state's second-largest system, had added only 1,500 as of last week for about 134,000 students. That's less than 2 percent growth, a far cry from the 5 percent and more steady growth of past years.

Why has growth slowed? Most educators point to the weak economy which has led fewer people to move nationwide.

But the National Center for Education Statistics was predicting in 2005 a slowing of public school growth over the next decade. Rising immigration – the immigrant population nearly tripled from 1970 to 2000 – and the baby boom echo – the 25 percent increase in the number of annual births that began in the mid-1970s and peaked in 1990 – were responsible for much of the boost in earlier years. That was leveling off. Enrollment in grades 9-12 was projected to start declining from 2007 to 2014.

Unfortunately many school districts are seeing no declines in the numbers of its most challenging students. Low-income students, limited English speakers and other students who tend to lag in academic preparation and need more help are dominating growth.

That's reflected in the changing demographics of CMS. The percentage of white and higher income students has steadily declined. Those students are no longer the majority of the student population. Nearly half the students in CMS qualified for free and reduced price lunch last year. Whites represented 35 percent of the student population, blacks 42 percent, Latinos 15 percent and other groups 8 percent. And more than 17,000 students lacked English proficiency.

Despite the slower overall population growth, these challenges have not lessened. School systems and their communities should commit the necessary resources to address them.