Counting Heads 

City schools will see a decrease in students, while counties will see gains, study predicts.

And Richmond City Schools will see an 11.6 percent decrease from 26,136 students this school year to 23,093 five years from now, the study predicts.

To compare, total membership in Virginia schools is expected to rise 2.5 percent during the next five years, from just under 1.18 million this school year to nearly 1.21 million in 2007-08. Richmond's neighboring counties match this rate more closely. According to the UVa. study, enrollment in Chesterfield County Schools will rise 3.4 percent; Henrico County School enrollment will rise 7.7 percent.

The university's state-funded Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service releases the predictions each year to assist local school systems in planning for the future. How do demographers guess how many students will show up for the first day of school in 2007?

"I don't really like the word 'guess,'" says Mike Spar, the UVa. research associate who calculates the predictions annually. Spar projects school enrollment figures from the current numbers by considering two factors: an area's historic birthrate and the patterns in promotion from one grade to another in prior years. From those he calculates an average rate of change. "And there you go," he says.

In some places in Virginia undergoing rapid development, enrollment rates may double from one year to the next "because they're growing so damn fast," Spar says. In others, rates decrease because people leave cities or the birthrate falls. The promotion rates take into account such variables as migrations, children entering or leaving private schools and new residential development. "Generally, it's a pretty accurate technique," Spar says. "It doesn't miss by a lot very often."

Spar doesn't directly furnish his data to school systems. Rather, he makes it available for reference on the Weldon Cooper Web site. Most school systems have their own statisticians calculate enrollment projections as well.

Hanover County uses the same method as Spar but looks ahead 10 years, says Paul Stagg, the county's director of construction and planning. And so far, the projections show growth similar to what Spar predicted.

The rate of increase in Hanover's enrollment wavers, but "for the next five years, we'll probably be in the neighborhood of 2.4 [percent growth] per year," Stagg observes. And it's no wild guess; in the past, he says, "our calculations have been within 1 percent of actual enrollment. That's a good number."

Stagg uses the projections to see if enough classroom space will be available, a calculation especially crucial for elementary schools, where students' schedules aren't flexible. The county's construction philosophy, Stagg says, is that if a school is over capacity by 10 percent or more for three successive years, relief must arrive by the fourth year — and not portable classrooms, either. "We're talking about actual brick and mortar," he says. Thus, Hanover is preparing for more students; this fall, the new Hanover High School will open on Route 301, next to 2-year-old Oak Mill Middle School.

The Richmond City school system relies on the Weldon Cooper statistics to anticipate future enrollment, but takes a more conservative view of the center's accuracy. "Using [the data] on a one-year basis ends up being a little more realistic," says Richard Williams, manager of testing and data systems.

The downward trend in enrollment is no surprise to Richmond Schools, however. For years, Williams says, "we've been crawling down slightly." The exact reasons haven't been determined, he says, other than that "the Richmond metropolitan area is a very mobile community." In other words, flight to the counties may explain the trends.

A smaller school population may save the city some money. "The potential is there to mean that we may not have open as many buildings as we have in the past," Williams says, but the ultimate decision to close schools will be up to the School Board.

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