In 1986, the Indianapolis and Gwinnett County (Ga.) school districts sat side by side on the list of the 100 largest school districts, each with slightly less than 51,000 students. But the districts were headed in opposite directions. By 2005, enrollment in Indianapolis declined by about 25 percent to 38,142, falling from the 63rd-largest to the 135th-largest district. Over the same years, Gwinnett County's enrollment grew by 184 percent to 144,598, rising from the 62nd-largest to the 15th-largest district in the nation.

That's an extreme example of the enrollment trends reflected in this year's AS&U 100 — a compilation of the nation's 100 largest school systems. Suburban districts, especially in growing states such as Florida, Texas, California and Georgia, have experienced growth over the last two decades, while many urban districts have seen enrollments decline as the baby boom echo subsides and families seek alternatives to traditional public schools.

Online databases compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics enable number crunchers to see how public school enrollments have evolved each year from 1986 to 2005.

The nation now has a greater number of larger districts. In 1986, the 100th-largest district (Kansas City, Mo.) had 36,200 students. In 2005, 147 districts were at least that large. The 100 largest districts in 1986 accounted for 8,650,212 students; in 2005, the top 100 accounted for 10,786,169 students. Twenty-four of the districts that were in the top 100 in 1986 do not appear on the current list, including urban districts such as Kansas City, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Newark, Minneapolis, Tulsa, Portland and Seattle.

As a group, the 100 largest districts in 2005 saw enrollment increase 32 percent over 19 years, while the enrollment of all public school districts grew 23.2 percent over the same time period.

From year to year, changes in the list typically are less dramatic. In 2005, five districts dropped out of the top 100: Omaha, Seattle, Portland, and most notably, Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish in Louisiana. Those school systems were decimated as thousands of families fled the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Orleans Parish, which includes New Orleans, reported only 5,874 students, compared with 64,920 the year before. It was the 55th-largest district in 2004; in 2005, it ranked 1,620th. Jefferson Parish, a suburban area adjacent to New Orleans, saw its school enrollment drop from 51,403 in 2004 to 41,625 in 2005. Its rank fell from 83rd to 120th.

Conversely, one of the districts that rejoined the top 100 was the East Baton Rouge (La.) district, which accepted many of the students who traveled the 80 miles from the New Orleans area. East Baton Rouge reported an enrollment spike of 7.6 percent in 2005, from 46,408 students to 49,945 students, and jumped from 101st to 85th on the AS&U 100.

The other districts that joined the top 100 in 2005 were the Katy and Alief districts in Texas, the Corona-Norco district in California and the Douglas County district in Colorado.

The large and fast-growing states of Florida, Texas and California continue to dominate the list. The three states claim 46 of the slots and account for 45 percent of the students in the top 100 districts.

With two additional districts, Texas now has 18 school systems among the 100 largest. Florida, with countywide school systems, has 14 districts in the top 100 — seven of those have more than 100,000 students. California also has 14 districts on the list.

Among the districts on the 2005 list, the sharpest one-year enrollment drops came in urban institutions — Cleveland's numbers fell 9.1 percent, from 64,670 in 2004 to 58,788 in 2005. Detroit dropped 5.8 percent, and Washington, D.C., dropped 4.3 percent. Those three districts also posted the sharpest declines over 10 years. Each of them lost more than 20 percent of their enrollment from 1995 to 2005. In 2005, the Detroit district had 56,000 fewer students than it did in 1986.

The district that gained the most students from 1986 to 2005 is Clark County, Nev. It added 198,986 students, more than tripling its size. The district on the list with the highest-percentage increase over those years is Douglas County, Colo., where enrollment in 2005 was nearly five times greater than in 1986 (see sidebar, p. 26). The highest-percentage increase from 2004 to 2005 was in the Katy (Texas) district, which grew 8.1 percent to 48,247 students.

Kennedy, AS&U staff writer, can be reached at mkennedy@asumag.com.

View the American School & University 100 PDF

Growth slows, needs don't

Enrollment climbed steadily during the 1990s in the Dallas Independent School District. The district grew 30 percent — from 125,897 students in 1989 to 163,334 in 2001.

In the 2000s, that growth has leveled off, and enrollment has dropped slightly. The district had 161,244 in 2005-06 and anticipates having 158,500 students this fall.

But the decline in student numbers does not mean Dallas, the nation's 14th-largest district, has caught up with its facility needs. As the district nears completion of the projects in a $1.37 billion construction program that voters approved in 2002, another $2.58 billion in facility needs are looming in the future, according to a report last month from the district's Future Facilities Task Force.

The school board has decided not to pursue a bond election this fall and is expected to use the task force report as the basis for a new bond proposal in 2008. The task force put forth four scenarios for possible bond issues, ranging from the full $2.58 billion to a scaled-down request of $1.2 billion.

The projects that would be part of the $2.58 billion package include 14 new elementary schools, four new middle schools and one new high school. Those would cost $553 million. Twenty-four schools would receive additions at a cost of $206 million. About $1.26 billion would be allocated for renovations and modernizations at 218 existing schools.

About $179 million is needed for land acquisition, the task force says, and $96 million would go for technology upgrades. Administration and support facilities would get $56 million for improvement; kitchen and dining facilities would get $53 million for refurbishment; and another $53 million would go for athletic facility upgrades. About $50 million would be spent on abating hazardous materials in the district, and $12 million would be set aside for science lab additions.

The $1.2 billion scenario would provide funding for only 14 new schools instead of 19, and 12 additions instead of 24, and would cut allocations for renovations and modernizations by two-thirds.

Climbing the list

Like a speeding car getting ever larger in the rearview mirror, the Douglas County (Colo.) district has been rapidly closing the gap as it made its way to the list of the nation's 100 largest school systems. In 2005-06, Douglas County cracked the top 100 for the first time. Its 48,041 students made the district the 97th largest in the United States.

Douglas County, which lies between Denver and Colorado Springs, was the nation's fastest-growing county in the 1990s, and the school system has seen its student enrollment quintuple in the last two decades. In 1986, it was the 666th-largest school system, with 9,693 students. Since then, student numbers have risen significantly every year — ranging from 3.5 percent to 12.5 percent annually.

To accommodate the influx of students, the district has been in continual construction mode. In the 1980s, Douglas County built 11 schools; in the 1990s, it built 21; from 2000 to 2005, it built another 20.

The district's projections point to continued growth for years to come. It expects to have more than 51,600 students this fall, and by 2012-13, it projects having more than 63,300 students. In 2006, voters approved a $200 million bond proposal to keep pace with the growth. That will enable the school system to build six new elementary schools, a new middle school, an early-childhood-education center and a stadium, as well as numerous facility renovations.

Still, all those additional facilities have not been enough to accommodate the burgeoning enrollment. So the district uses portable classrooms — it had 118 in 2006 — and year-round calendars at some schools to boost capacity at many of its campuses.

“The use of the four-track year-round calendars and mobile classrooms has enabled the district to save taxpayers millions of dollars in capital expenditures, while planning for a day when growth is minimal,” says Steve Herzog, the district's chief operating officer.

In 2007, Douglas County anticipates that nearly 16,000 students will attend 24 elementary schools that have year-round calendars. That amounts to about 56 percent of the district's elementary students.

Stadium is sign of Central Florida's growth

The numbers show that the University of Central Florida (UCF) has become one of the largest campuses in the United States. Enrollment at the Orlando-based school climbed more than 68 percent from 1995 to 2005, and it now has the 11th-largest enrollment among higher-education institutions, compared with 47th in 1995.

But more tangible evidence that the university has reached the top ranks of colleges and universities will be on display beginning in mid-September when UCF unveils its new on-campus football stadium. After years of playing off campus in the Citrus Bowl, the UCF Golden Knights' home field will be the 45,000-capacity Bright House Networks Stadium. The stadium is the key element of a $60 million project to upgrade athletic fields and facilities. The university raised funds for construction through naming rights, revenues from suites and club seat leases, ticket and concessions sales, donations, corporate sponsorships and advertising.

About a week before the stadium's debut, UCF is opening another noteworthy facility — a new 10,000-seat convocation center, about double the capacity of the existing campus arena. The venue will be home to the university's basketball teams, and will host concerts and other events. The convocation center is the focal point of a development called Golden Knights Plaza, which includes 2,000 student apartments, more than 100,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, and three parking garages.

Central Florida has steadily climbed the list of colleges and universities as its enrollment has increased, but another school on the 2005 list seems to have popped up out of nowhere. Western International University, with 50,663 students, ranks fifth on the list. Like the University of Phoenix — the U.S. university with the most students — Western International is owned by Apollo Group in Phoenix.

A spokesman for Apollo Group says that Western International's sudden spike in enrollment is a one-time phenomenon. The students were part of a program that was under the auspices of Western International for one year; subsequently the program was moved under the University of Phoenix umbrella, and Western International will drop off the 2006 list.

20 largest enrollments, colleges and universities, fall 2005
Rank Institution State 2005 Enroll. 2004 Enroll. 1995 Enroll. 10-yr% change
1 University of Phoenix Online Campus AZ 117,309 115,794 n/a* n/a*
2 Miami-Dade College FL 54,169 57,026 47,060 15.1%
3 Arizona State University AZ 51,612 49,171 42,040 22.8%
4 University of Minnesota-Twin Cities MN 51,175 50,954 51,445 -0.5%
5 Western International University AZ 50,663 n/a* n/a* n/a*
6 Ohio State University OH 50,504 50,995 48,676 3.8%
7 University of Texas at Austin TX 49,696 50,377 47,905 3.7%
8 University of Florida FL 46,693 47,993 39,412 18.5%
9 Michigan State University MI 45,166 44,836 40,647 11.1%
10 Texas A&M University TX 44,910 44,435 41,790 7.5%
11 University of Central Florida FL 44,856 42,465 26,556 68.9%
12 City College of San Francisco CA 43,255 42,438 26,019 66.2%
13 University of South Florida FL 42,660 42,238 36,142 18.0%
14 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign IL 41,938 40,687 38,420 9.2%
15 University of Wisconsin-Madison WI 40,793 40,455 39,005 4.6%
16 Pennsylvania State University PA 40,709 41,289 39,646 2.7%
17 Purdue University IN 40,151 40,108 36,427 10.2%
18 New York University NY 40,004 39,408 35,835 11.6%
19 University of Michigan-Ann Arbor MI 39,993 39,533 36,687 9.0%
20 North Harris (Texas) Montgomery Community College TX 39,949 35,788 n/a* n/a*
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
*Was not among the 120 largest campuses in 1995.