October 11, 2008

Student Enrollment Climbs in Roanoke As Counties’ Fall

By David Harrison [email protected] 777-3523

Roanoke public schools are boasting a slight increase in enrollment this year, halting a decade-long slide. But other public school systems in the Roanoke region, which had been growing, are posting moderate decreases in enrollment.

According to statistics compiled by school officials at the end of September, Roanoke now instructs 12,489 students, not counting preschool students. That's 159 more than last year, perhaps a reflection of demographic trends in the city.

When including preschool students, the city's enrollment climbs to 13,211. In Roanoke County, enrollment dropped by 189 students to 14,742 in kindergarten through 12th grade, indicating that the county's steadily growing student population may be leveling off because of the softening economy. But the county does have almost 100 more preschool students this year, offsetting some of the loss in the older grades.

Although it's far too early to suggest that a new trend is taking shape in Roanoke, the new statistics contradict at least two consulting firms that had predicted city schools would inexorably continue to lose students. Roanoke has lost about 900 students in the past 10 years.

Several factors could be behind the change. Census statistics show that the number of people age 35 to 39 increased by 465 between 2004 and 2007. There was a corresponding increase last year in the number of children younger than 5, anticipating a bubble in elementary school enrollment this year.

"We have a fair number of young families," Roanoke Superintendent Rita Bishop said. "There's some bulge."

Meanwhile, the influx of immigrant and refugee students in the city remains strong. And some families may be moving out of surrounding areas into the city looking for cheaper housing costs.

Roanoke County last year also stopped accepting new tuition- paying students from outside the county because its buildings were starting to get crowded. Allen Journell, assistant superintendent in Roanoke County, said county schools used to accept about 50 new tuition students annually.

This year, Fallon Park Elementary School in Southeast Roanoke overtook Westside Elementary in Northwest as the city's largest elementary school. The school system's statistics show that 570 students go to Fallon Park, but Principal Cynthia Delp said that number is closer to 620 when preschool students are included.

Delp said the school has seen new students from an apartment complex that opened nearby. The number of refugee and immigrant children has not dropped off either.

"We actually have a Vietnamese family enrolling right now," she said Thursday morning. "We've been able to develop management strategies that control large groups of children."

The school has expanded its lunch hours from 10:25 a.m. to 12:50 p.m. to cycle all students through the line. At breakfast, many students pick up their food, take it to their classroom and eat during instructional time. Nine classrooms are in trailers this year, Delp said.

Roanoke is seeing a slight increase in the number of refugees this year, said Beth Lutgen, director of Refugee and Immigration Services. The Catholic Church-affiliated agency will help place about 200 people this year, up from about 180 last year, she said, which could account for part of the school system's increase.

In Roanoke County, Superintendent Lorraine Lange said principals had been anticipating the drop in enrollment since the summer.

"I honestly think it's the economy," she said. "I'm talking to everybody all over: Houses aren't selling, corporations are downsizing." Lange said she expected the housing market and school enrollments to pick up when the economy recovers.

Montgomery, Franklin, Botetourt and Bedford counties and the city of Salem all lost students this year, compared with enrollment numbers for kindergarten through 12th grade from this time last year.

Botetourt County lost about four dozen students, roughly twice as many as the school system there had expected to lose, Assistant Superintendent John Busher said.

Staff writers Matt Chittum, Jay Conley, Courtney Cutright, Pete Dybdahl, Anna Mallory and Janelle Rucker contributed to this report.

Public school enrollments

(Figures include preschool)


Last year 11,036

This year 10,650


Last year 5,000

This year 4,947


Last year 7,529

This year 7,185


Last year 9,752

This year 9,659


Last year 12,941

This year 13,211


Last year 15,105

This year 15,023


Last year 3,982

This year 3,907

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