From the early 1970s until the mid-1980s, as the baby boomers completed their education and their ranks dwindled, public school enrollment declined steadily. But beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing today, enrollment has been rising.
Looking at this year's AS&U 100 list of the nation's largest school districts, one can see many of the changes that have occurred among those communities. Based on preliminary data from the National Center for Education Statistics for 2002-03, the list shows that since the mid-1980s, large districts in general have grown larger, and suburban districts have claimed a greater share of those enrollment gains, often at the expense of urban school systems. Districts in the western part of the country have been growing faster than those in the East and Midwest.
For instance, from 1986 to 2002, the Atlanta district's enrollment shrunk by 16 percent as it dropped from the 37th largest district to the 74th. Over those same years, the suburban districts surrounding Atlanta — Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Clayton counties — grew anywhere from 34 percent to 140 percent. The Gwinnett, Cobb and Fulton districts all moved ahead of Atlanta in enrollment (DeKalb already was larger than Atlanta in 1986).
Districts that were among the 100 largest in 1986 that had dropped from the list in 2002 include urban districts: Newark, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Toledo, Birmingham, Pittsburgh and Kansas City.
They were replaced by districts such as Pasco and Lee counties in Florida; Cypress-Fairbanks, Plano, Fort Bend and Garland in Texas; San Bernardino, Capistrano and Elk Grove in California; Cherry Creek, Colo.; Alpine, Utah; Washoe County, Nev.; Howard County, Md.; Clayton County, Ga.; Guilford County, N.C., and Knox County, Tenn. (in the final two districts, the rapid growth rate is the result of districts' consolidating).
Newark was the highest-ranked district from 1986 to drop off the list. It was the 57th-largest school system in 1986, but 16 years later, it was only the 114th largest. In addition to Atlanta, many urban districts that remained among the 100 largest in 2002 experienced similar enrollment loss over those 16 years. Enrollments dropped in the Washington, D.C., district by 21.1 percent, in the New Orleans district by 15 percent, in the Baltimore city district by 13.5 percent, and in the San Francisco district by 10.1 percent.
Since 1986, the fastest growing of the 100 largest districts is the Elk Grove, Calif., district in the Sacramento area. It had a modest 18,222 students in 1986, which placed it as the 262nd-largest district in the United States. By 2002, it had grown 187 percent, and its enrollment of 52,418 made it the 81st-largest district (see sidebar on p. 24).
The district that has gained the most students from 1986 to 2002 is the Clark County, Nev., district, which includes Las Vegas. It was the 18th-largest district with 95,145 students in 1986. By 2002, enrollment had climbed by more than 161,000, and its 256,574 students make it the nation's sixth largest.
From year to year, the list of the 100 largest districts changes little. Of the 100 districts on the 2001-02 list, 98 remain on the list in 2002-03. Only the 99th and 100th districts — Caddo Parish, La., and Buffalo, N.Y. — dropped from the list (replaced by Cherry Creek, Colo., and St. Louis).
Also, a list of the largest school districts tends to be heavily weighted toward areas that have countywide school systems. For instance, Florida has 13 countywide districts represented on the list. Georgia, where most districts are countywide systems, has a total student enrollment of almost 1.5 million and six districts among the 100 largest. Pennsylvania, with 1.8 million students dispersed among smaller districts, has only one district (Philadelphia) on the list.
As a group, the largest districts grew more rapidly and added schools at a faster pace than districts nationwide. In 2002-03, the 100 largest districts enrolled 10,745,337 students, an increase of 27.9 percent from 1986, when those districts had an enrollment of 8,399,372. The number of schools in those districts rose 29 percent from 1986 to 2002 — from 11,567 in 1986 to 14,920 in 2002.
In comparison, public school enrollment nationwide grew 21.3 percent from 1986 to 2002 — from 39,753,172 to 48,202,324. The number of schools did not grow as fast as enrollment — 96,048 schools in 2002, 14.4 percent more than the 82,925 schools in 1986.
In 1986, the 100th largest district was Kansas City, Mo., with 36,200 students. In 2002-03, 142 school districts had at least 36,200 students; the 100th largest, St. Louis, had 45,480.
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How many is too many?
That's the question administrators at the University of Texas at Austin, which has the largest single-campus enrollment in the nation, have pondered as they look at their burgeoning student population, which tallied 52,261 in the fall of 2002. A task force that examined the issue found that student-faculty ratios had become too high and four-year graduation rates were too low. The group, made up of faculty, staff and students, concluded that the school should reduce undergraduate enrollment over the next five years to bring the total student population down to 48,000.
“It is the undergraduate enrollment that should be decreased,” says the task force, “because it is this enrollment that has recently reached historic highs, and it is the undergraduate area in which the task force has found significant educational difficulties. If we leave undergraduate enrollment at its present size or let it grow further, then it will be harder to achieve the goal of a reduced student-faculty ratio, particularly if we are simultaneously encouraging students to take higher course loads.”
University president Larry Faulkner has endorsed the task force recommendations.
The task force also concluded that the facilities on the campus of more than 350 acres could readily accommodate 48,000 students.
“The 48,000 figure is a level of enrollment we have sustained over a considerable period in the past,” the group says. “Our physical plant is suitable for dealing with a population of this size, and to let the population fall lower would mean underutilization of this plant.”
In the short term, the task force recommends that Texas create more classroom space.
Top 100 school districts by enrollment, 2002-03
|Rank||District||Enrollment, 2002-03||# schools, 2002-03||Total staff, 2002-03||Per-pupil expenditure ($), 2002-03||Enrollment, 2001-02||Enrollment, 1986-87||1986 rank||% change, ‘86-‘02|
|1||New York City||1,077,381||1,429||129,953||11,314||1,049,831||938,473||1||14.8|
|4||Miami-Dade County, Fla.||373,395||370||36,539||6,565||375,836||243,537||4||53.3|
|5||Broward County, Fla.||267,925||259||25,401||5,877||262,055||131,726||10||103.4|
|6||Clark County, Nev.||256,574||282||21,626||5,799||245,659||95,145||18||168.2|
|10||Hillsborough County, Fla.||175,454||229||21,059||6,064||169,789||115,242||13||52.2|
|12||Palm Beach County, Fla.||164,896||208||17,974||6,346||160,223||84,680||24||94.7|
|14||Fairfax County, Va.||162,585||202||23,413||9,200||160,584||126,183||11||28.9|
|15||Orange County, Fla.||158,718||188||19,557||5,994||157,433||84,125||25||88.7|
|17||Montgomery County, Md.||138,983||194||17,800||10,005||136,895||94,457||19||47.1|
|18||Prince George's County, Md.||135,439||204||15,819||8,052||135,039||103,301||16||31.1|
|19||Duval County, Fla.||128,126||181||11,869||5,689||127,392||102,966||17||24.4|
|20||Gwinnett County, Ga.||122,570||89||14,539||7,025||116,339||50,906||62||140.8|
|22||Pinellas County, Fla.||114,772||172||13,958||6,113||114,583||88.934||22||29.1|
|23||Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C.||109,767||134||14,195||7,000||106,312||73,360||30||49.6|
|25||Wake County, N.C.||104,836||123||13,016||6,633||101,756||58,202||52||80.1|
|26||Cobb County, Ga.||100,389||102||12,555||7,068||98,338||62,357||42||61.0|
|27||DeKalb County, Ga.||97,967||139||13,373||8,117||97,501||73,040||31||34.1|
|29||Long Beach, Calif.||97,212||89||8,993||7,018||96,488||65,052||39||49.4|
|31||Jefferson County, Ky.||95,651||175||13,434||7,994||93,516||92,940||20||2.9|
|33||Jefferson County, Colo.||87,925||169||10,011||7,677||88,460||75,745||29||16.1|
|34||Polk County, Fla.||82,179||148||10,545||5,835||81,207||59,352||50||45.8|
|38||Virginia Beach, Va.||75,902||85||8,061||7,092||75,970||55,989||55||35.6|
|40||Anne Arundel County, Md.||74,787||119||8,075||8,140||75,081||64,006||41||16.8|
|42||Brevard County, Fla.||72,601||110||8,200||5,733||71,781||48,154||68||50.8|
|45||Fulton County, Ga.||71,372||81||9,496||8,507||69,841||38,855||91||83.7|
|48||Orleans Parish, La.||70,246||128||8,448||6,436||73,185||82,639||26||-15.0|
|49||Northside (San Antonio)||69,409||89||9,988||6,411||66,000||44,776||74||55.0|
|50||Nashville-Davidson County, Tenn.||67,954||123||8,259||7,207||67,689||66,528||36||2.1|
|52||Guilford County, N.C.||65,677||102||7,853||6,750||64,546||23,925||179||174.5|
|54||Mobile County, Ala.||64,058||103||7,708||5,833||63,846||67,824||35||-5.6|
|55||Santa Ana, Calif.||63,610||55||5,567||7,172||61,909||37,415||98||70.0|
|56||Seminole County, Fla.||63,446||75||6,601||5,605||62,786||41,626||82||52.4|
|59||Lee County, Fla.||63,172||79||6,737||6,046||60,718||35,309||103||78.9|
|60||Volusia County, Fla.||63,000||92||8,362||5,928||62,599||40,169||85||56.8|
|64||Prince William County, Va.||60,541||75||7,128||7,267||58,017||37,600||97||61.0|
|65||Washoe County, Nev.||60,384||100||7,228||6,048||58,532||33,705||109||79.2|
|67||Fort Bend, Texas||59,489||60||7,496||6,334||56,186||27,294||151||118.0|
|72||North East (San Antonio)||55,053||69||7,381||6,634||53,218||38,062||95||44.7|
|73||Pasco County, Fla.||54,957||72||6,932||5,785||52,675||29,347||137||87.3|
|76||Chesterfield County, Va.||53,621||59||6,743||6,297||52,726||38,776||92||38.3|
|77||Knox County, Tenn.||53,411||88||6,627||6,148||51,866||26,485||154||101.7|
|80||East Baton Rouge Parish, La.||52,434||107||7,204||7,311||52,350||57,523||53||-8.8|
|81||Elk Grove, Calif.||52,418||55||4,593||7,078||49,970||18,222||262||187.7|
|82||San Juan, Calif.||52,212||84||5,061||7,519||51,383||45,791||72||14.0|
|83||Cumberland County, N.C.||52,094||84||6,314||6,153||51,434||43,783||75||19.0|
|85||Jefferson Parish, La.||51,501||85||6,991||6,625||50,766||60,182||49||-14.4|
|87||Garden Grove, Calif.||50,066||67||4,173||6,680||49,809||36,395||99||37.6|
|89||Clayton County, Ga.||49,594||54||6,167||6,593||48,232||32,538||114||52.4|
|94||Howard County, Md.||47,197||69||6,075||9,035||46,257||25,629||161||84.2|
|95||Forsyth County, N.C.||46,806||68||5,422||6,880||45,707||38,857||90||20.5|
|96||Ysleta (El Paso)||46,745||63||5,982||6,158||46,811||48,653||66||-3.9|
|99||Cherry Creek, Colo.||45,738||53||5,273||7,125||44,228||26,459||155||72.9|
|Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data|
Growth surge continues
By nearly tripling its enrollment from 1986 to 2002, the Elk Grove (Calif.) Unified District is the fastest-growing school system on this year's AS&U 100.
The district, which covers 320 square miles in southern Sacramento County, projects that the influx of students to the area, which has seen enrollments rise steadily since the 1960s, will continue at least through this decade.
Elk Grove's enrollment climbed from 3,823 in 1959 to 8,798 in 1969 to 12,162 in 1979. The growth accelerated in the next two decades, reaching 24,385 in 1989 and 47,423 in 2000. For the 2004-05 school year, the district expects to enroll more than 58,000 students. If, as expected, enrollment reaches 80,000 students by 2010, it would be among the 40 largest districts in the United States.
That's a long way up the charts from 1986, when 261 other U.S. districts had greater enrollments.
The district has been able to increase the effective capacity of its facilities through the use of year-round schedules at many of its schools. Elk Grove estimates that 60 percent of its students are on a four-track schedule of three months in school and one month off.
Even with year-round calendars, Elk Grove administrators have had their hands full constructing new facilities. The district opened six schools in the two previous years, and this fall, it is opening a high school, middle school and two elementary schools. Next fall, it is scheduled to open three more campuses.
“In addition, the district must build 18 more elementary schools, three more middle schools, and three more high schools by 2010,” according to the district.
Big plans in the Big Apple
With more than 1 million students, New York City has by far the most students of any U.S. district — some 330,000 more than the next largest school system.
So it's no surprise that its facility needs make those of other districts look like a drop in the bucket. The school system's five-year capital plan for fiscal years 2005-09 has identified $13.1 billion in construction projects.
“The plan places priority on directing resources to schools that are struggling the most and addresses the problem of overcrowding in our schools,” says the school system's executive summary of the plan.
The three main elements of the capital plan:
$4.6 billion for restructuring of existing schools, including funds to reconfigure 671 struggling schools into smaller schools and to create 50 small charter schools. Also included in this category: $736 million for technology enhancements, such as wireless systems, computers and Internet connections; $157 million for safety upgrades such as access-control systems and video surveillance equipment; and $1.276 billion for enhancements such as science lab upgrades, improved accessibility for those with disabilities, and creation of more playgrounds.
$4.2 billion to build 90 new schools. This will help alleviate overcrowding, reduce class size in primary grades and diminish the school system's reliance on transportable classrooms. This part of the plan would pay for construction of 90 new schools with an aggregate student capacity of 66,000; 13 will be 440-capacity schools, housing either grades K-3 or K-8; 54 will be 630-seat primary/intermediate buildings, many of which will house grades K-8; 23 will be 1,650-capacity intermediate/high school buildings, many of which will house grades 6-12.
$4.3 billion for building upgrades and other repairs. That includes $923 million for exterior building improvements; $1.7 billion for interior building system upgrades; $297 million for other building upgrades; $200 million for central office technology; and $1.2 billion for other needs.
The capital plan stresses that the projects cannot go forward without substantial assistance from the state. The New York State Court of Appeals ordered the state last year to reform its school funding system to provide more equitable funding to New York City, but the legislature did not act before the court's deadline of July 30, 2004.
“State funds are essential to correct the generations-long imbalance between the needs of our children and the resources provided to our schools,” the plan asserts.
20 largest enrollments, colleges and universities, Fall 2002
|Miami-Dade Community College||54,926|
|University of Texas at Austin||52,261|
|Ohio State University||49,676|
|University of Minnesota-Twin Cities||48,677|
|University of Phoenix-Online Campus||48,085|
|University of Florida||47,373|
|Arizona State University||47,359|
|Texas A&M University||45,083|
|Michigan State University||44,937|
|City College of San Francisco||42,975|
|Pennsylvania State University||41,445|
|University of Wisconsin-Madison||40,884|
|University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign||39,999|
|University of Washington-Seattle||39,882|
|Houston Community College System||39,528|
|Northern Virginia Community College||39,129|
|University of Michigan-Ann Arbor||38,972|
|University of South Florida||38,854|
|Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System|