Education

CMS enrollment growth falls short of projection, hits 6-year low

Albemarle Road Elementary, a majority-Hispanic school in east Charlotte, is now CMS’ largest elementary school with more than 1,100 students. Many are in mobile classrooms.
Albemarle Road Elementary, a majority-Hispanic school in east Charlotte, is now CMS’ largest elementary school with more than 1,100 students. Many are in mobile classrooms. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

Enrollment growth in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools slowed to a seldom-seen level this year, coming in at less than one-third of what district officials had projected, according to a report posted quietly and belatedly this month.

The official tally is 146,140 students, up 777 over last year. CMS had expected to add 2,400 students.

The growth was largely fueled by a steadily increasing Hispanic population, with enrollment of black students and white students declining slightly. That’s a national and statewide trend outlined at a recent school board forum, where a UNC professor said immigration and higher birth rates among Hispanic families are changing the face of public education.

Meanwhile, CMS says 15,535 Mecklenburg students are enrolled in charter schools this year, an increase of almost 2,400 students. CMS had expected to see about 2,000 more students go to charters, which are public schools run by independent boards.

The latest figures indicate CMS now has 77 percent of the county’s school-age children, with about 10 percent in private schools, 8 percent in charter schools and 4 percent home-schooled.

The slowdown in growth comes as CMS prepares to look at needs for new schools, expansions and renovations, anticipating a bond campaign soon. It affects the number of teachers the state will pay for, though the impact was not immediately clear.

And it comes as the school board delves into student assignment, trying to figure out the best way to reduce racial and economic isolation without alienating families who are happy with their schools.

77% of Mecklenburg students attend CMS

10% attend private schools

8% attend charter schools

4% are home-schooled

School poverty levels, which have become more complicated to tally because of a change in the free lunch program, have not yet been released.

CMS officials did not respond Monday and Tuesday to Observer requests to explain the enrollment shortfall. In early September, Superintendent Ann Clark told the school board the district was on track to meet its growth projections, which would have meant almost 148,000 students.

Since then there has been no public discussion of enrollment. Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart said Tuesday that she hadn’t seen the reports that were posted on the CMS website in November and didn’t know that CMS had come up short.

The slowdown comes after years of steady growth. In the early years of the 21st century, CMS was adding 3,000 to 5,000 students a year.

The recession reined those numbers in. CMS dropped by about 400 students in 2009, but that was partly because the state pushed the cutoff for starting kindergarten from October to August. Because CMS didn’t have a full year’s worth of 5-year-olds, that year’s kindergarten class was 1,000 to 1,100 students smaller than usual.

Since then, CMS has added 1,800 to 3,100 students each year, until now.

2,924 at South Meck, largest high school in CMS

1,754 at Community House, largest middle school in CMS

1,132 at Albemarle Road, largest elementary school in CMS

The number of Hispanic students in CMS has been rising steadily, with an increase of 1,650 students this year. Asian students, who make up 6 percent of the student body, also increased by 629.

White enrollment continued to inch downward, as it has for several years, with 598 fewer students. And black enrollment, which had leveled off after several years of growth, also ticked down, with a decline of 843 students.

 

Projecting CMS enrollment has become more challenging since the state legislature lifted the cap on charter schools in 2011. The Charlotte area has seen more new charters open than any other part of the state. Three newly opened Charlotte charters also closed during their first year.

Students can cross county lines to attend charter schools, which means CMS must estimate Mecklenburg enrollment in several large charter schools in adjacent counties.

New charters don’t always meet their enrollment projections, and in 2014 CMS ended up with about 1,750 more students than it expected.

Wake County also fell short of projections this year, expecting to top 158,000 students but instead landing just over 157,000. That’s still an increase of about 2,000 students.

Observer data reporter Gavin Off and (Raleigh) News & Observer staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed.

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

CMS enrollment

Total

▪ 146,140, up 777

▪ Projection was 147,769

Black

▪ 57,957, or 40 percent

▪ Down 843 students

White

▪ 42,934, or 29 percent

▪ Down 598 students

Hispanic

▪ 32,119, or 22 percent

▪ Up 1,650 students

Asian

▪ 8,966, or 6 percent

▪ Up 629 students

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