From boom to bust in a decade: What empty seats at this suburban school signal for NC

The empty classrooms at Rea View Elementary School could hint at the future of public education in North Carolina.

This isn’t a tale of urban abandonment. Just the opposite: Rea View was built a decade ago to handle the surge of children pouring into western Union County, just across the line from Charlotte’s prosperous and populous Ballantyne area.

The surrounding neighborhoods were a magnet for parents like Laura and Brian Sheridan, drawn by Union County tax rates, high-performing schools and a reasonable commute to Brian’s job in uptown Charlotte.

When their oldest child started school, Rea View had six kindergarten classes. Now there are four. Rea View has gone from almost 900 students when it opened to just over 500, as the initial batch of young children have moved up and haven’t always been replaced.

“Yeah, people are still moving out to Union County, though not in the numbers they were 10 years ago,” says Jerome McKibben, a Rock Hill, S.C., demographer who advises the school district. “Empty nest is their fastest-growing household type.”

When the first batch of statewide enrollment numbers landed this fall, some were taken aback to see years of growth flatten or reverse. North Carolina’s public school enrollment inched up by about 3,500 students, or two-tenths of a percent. Eighty-one of 115 districts, including Union County, had fewer students than one year before. Wake and Mecklenburg counties grew, but fell short of projections and previous years’ trends.

This in a state that had been growing by about 6,000 to more than 14,000 students in recent years, with much bigger increases before the Great Recession hit in 2008. And while charter schools have been scooping up much of the state’s recent growth, this year’s flat numbers include students opting for charters.

That poses a question with big implications for taxpayers, families and educators: Is this a one-year blip, or the start of a long enrollment slide? The answer will affect everything from how much money is required to hire teachers to where those teachers are assigned, whether they lose their jobs and how many schools need to be built – or closed.

“I think we’re all trying to figure out: Is this going to come back to a replacement level, or where’s the bottom? I’m not sure anybody knows yet, but we’re watching it,” said state demographer Mike Cline. If the enrollment slump continues the state may revise its long-range growth projections, which are used for budget planning, he said.

Smartphones and a baby bust

Meanwhile, experts and journalists across the country are asking where the children are.

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and executive editor of Education Next, tweeted a link to a November Observer article about the enrollment slump to reporters across the country, saying “this baby bust is a national trend and makes for great story fodder everywhere.”

Publications such as the National Review and Bloomberg View have run recent articles about declining birth rates and a slowdown in immigration. The belief that economic recovery would be accompanied by a resurgence in child-bearing may prove false, experts warn.

Demographic Intelligence, a fertility consulting group based in Charlottesville, Va., predicted in November that U.S. birth rates would hit a 30-year low in 2017. In 2015 and 2016, the group said, the U.S. Census projected slight increases that would push the annual total past 4 million births. Instead, actual births declined slightly both years.

Demographic Intelligence projects another decline, from 3.95 million births in 2016 to 3.84 million when the 2017 numbers are tallied. And the group offered an intriguing theory about the cause.

“Younger women are having fewer children,” said Sam Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence. “We think that declines in sex among young adults, driven perhaps in part by the rising popularity of smartphones and social media as well as a reluctance to enter into a committed relationship, help explain marked falls in young women’s childbearing in a period when a growing economy should have led to more births, not fewer births.”

Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociology professor who advises Demographic Intelligence, says the link between social media and sex is speculative, but the dip in sex and childbearing among teens and young adults is well documented. And if that trend continues it has big implications for public schools, as well as businesses that market products for babies and young children, he said.

So what’s happening?

In the Charlotte area, Union County schools are seen as synonymous with rapid growth. The county’s population grew almost 13 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to the most recent Census estimates. From 2010 to 2015 the school district added 2,700 students, peaking just short of 42,000.

But Union County schools have lost about 650 students over the last two years.

In 2015 McKibben started warning the school board that the enrollment boom would slow, then reverse, though the changes are coming sooner than he predicted.

Projecting the school-age population requires tracking birth rates, residential construction and who’s moving in or out. “There’s always four or five or six things going on at the same time,” McKibben said. “When they all start pointing in the same direction you see a trend.”

North Carolina’s enrollment growth has been fueled by an influx of young families moving in from other states and nations. Urban areas like Charlotte and Raleigh have seen years of rapid student growth, which now seems to be dwindling.

Babies born during the depths of the recession, from 2008 to 2010, are reaching elementary school age, so those schools are seeing the biggest slump. In CMS, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox says this year’s growth came primarily in middle and high schools.

CMS would be shrinking if it weren’t for steady growth in Hispanic enrollment, which has offset losses in black and white students. The district has more immigrant students learning English than any other in North Carolina, even though Wake is larger.

National and state experts say Hispanic immigration and fertility have been slowing for several years.

And in areas like the neighborhoods that surround Rea View Elementary, construction has mostly finished and the families who bought homes are staying put as their children get older, McKibben says.

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Rea View Elementary Principal Jennifer Hoover waves as students in the car line head home at the end of a December school day. Davie Hinshaw

Rea View Principal Jennifer Hoover agrees: “There was a huge influx of children when the newer neighborhoods were built. Now that population bubble has gone on.”

Hoover and parents like Laura Sheridan, who also works as a school receptionist, say spare classrooms have been turned into science labs or activity rooms. Lower enrollment means fewer teachers; Sheridan recalls being disappointed when her daughter had an excellent young teacher who wasn’t brought back the next year.

How do schools react?

School choice and competition add to the challenge of predicting where students will show up.

Charter schools, which are authorized by the state and don’t report to local school boards, have accounted for most of North Carolina’s public school enrollment growth in recent years. But several Charlotte-area charter schools have also struggled to fill seats.

Taxpayer-funded scholarships are helping almost 7,000 North Carolina children from low- to moderate-income homes attend private schools, and the General Assembly has approved money to keep increasing that program.

In the Northeast and the Midwest, the combination of intense competition and sharply declining enrollment has created turmoil, says McKibben, who consults across the country. “In the Midwest they’re closing schools right and left because they don’t have enough kids to keep them open,” he said.

North Carolina is far from that point, especially in its urban/suburban areas. And empty classrooms in elementary schools could be a blessing in the short term, with a state-mandated class-size cap for grades K-3 forcing schools to figure out where to put additional classes.

But shifting from constant growth mode is demanding some change.

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Rea View Elementary students in Union County head to their buses just before winter break. Davie Hinshaw

Union County’s school board is in the midst of redrawing boundaries, a process that’s expected to restore some of the enrollment at Rea View.

Wake County, which saw the state’s most rapid growth during the pre-recession years, adopted staggered year-round school calendars to squeeze more students into existing buildings. Now the district is returning to traditional schedules – and parents who grew to like the year-round calendar are protesting.

Mecklenburg voters just approved a record $922 million in school bonds. News of the enrollment slump led some to question the need for new schools and expansions.

But Clayton Wilcox says the need isn’t going away. CMS fell behind on school construction during the recession, and most of the bond projects are designed to address crowding that already exists.

The list of bond projects presented during the campaign is not legally binding, which means the school board could revise plans if the situation changes dramatically. But Wilcox says that’s unlikely.

“We know that we have deteriorating school conditions,” Wilcox said recently. “We know that we have schools that were overcrowded from the beginning. ... I think the schools will largely go exactly where we said they were going to go.”

Wilcox, who started work in July, noted that constant steep growth brings its own challenges, including the need to constantly expand staff and seek bigger budgets. In his early months on the job, he has said his goal is to review what’s working in CMS, get rid of programs that aren’t and focus on doing the right things well.

“The upside to this,” he said, “may be that we can actually slow down and catch our breath and do some things.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms