By Marquita Brown | Clarion Ledger | The Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — For the first time in more than a decade, the enrollment in Jackson Public Schools has dipped below 30,000 students.
Meanwhile, enrollment in Madison County and Rankin County schools has swelled by hundreds of students since the 2009-10 school year, according to figures The Clarion-Ledger obtained from the state Department of Education through an open records request and from the department’s web site.
DeSoto County School District is still the largest in the state, with 32,311 students. JPS is second with 29,898.
School district officials said they do not track where students go when they leave a district or where students come from when they enroll.
When asked about the reasons behind the enrollment changes, responses included schools’ academic performance, new jobs in the area, or families leaving to find jobs elsewhere.
Katherine Nelson, spokeswoman for DeSoto County schools, put it this way: “We think the growth is due to our excellent public school system and our continuing growing industrial base plus the quality of life in DeSoto County.”
Those factors have contributed to the district’s enrollment bumps year after year even in an economic downturn, Nelson said.
In two years, more than 1,000 additional students have enrolled in DeSoto County schools.
The county is the fastest growing in the state, according to the most recent census figures. Industries that have opened in the area include Soladigm, a manufacturer of energy efficient glass panels, which brought 300 jobs to Olive Branch last year.
Meanwhile, Hinds County and Jackson have seen a population drop, according to the U.S. Census.
Jayne Sargent, interim superintendent of Jackson Public Schools, noted the city’s population decrease.
“So, I’m not surprised that enrollment of students would be down,” Sargent said in a statement.
Willie Johnson, executive director of JPS’ office of Accountability and Research, said there also are many cases where people without children are moving into the city while some families with school-age children are moving out.
Enrollment in the district’s elementary schools has been fairly constant, Johnson said.
Enrollment numbers from JPS show the biggest decrease in a year, 243 students, was in the middle schools.
Chastain Middle School is labeled successful. The district’s other middle schools are low performing or on academic watch. Whitten Middle School is labeled failing.
Greenville schools also have seen a dramatic decrease in enrollment – about 287 students in one year. In 2003-04, the school district’s enrollment was 7,383; the number has fallen to 5,858.
While, academics play a role, the numbers suggest other factors. For example, some school districts taken over by the state have still seen slight enrollment increases.
Hazlehurst schools grew by three students this year and by 51 students since 2009-10. Clinton is one of the state’s four star districts, and it grew by 52 students this year. But total enrollment for the district since 2009-10 is down 11 students.
School enrollment numbers tie into district funding. The average daily attendance is factored into the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the funding formula for the state’s public schools.
In recent years, the need for cost savings in a floundering economic climate, as well as low enrollment levels in some districts, helped drive talks of consolidation.
Dramatic increases in enrollment also create the challenge of having enough building space to accommodate the growth.
In DeSoto County, the district buildings are built to accommodate the projected growth for the next five to eight years, Nelson said.
Hugh Carr, an assistant superintendent in Rankin County schools, described a balancing act that begins with principals looking at enrollment numbers each spring and figuring out what classes will be offered in the fall.
Then, if there is a class added at any given school for the upcoming year, “they’ve got to have a place that they can call home,” Carr said.
When it comes to giving a teacher a classroom, some of the schools are at capacity, he said.
Sometimes portable classrooms are added or some teachers, called “floaters,” have to teach in different areas of the school, such as a classroom that is available during another teacher’s planning period.
The priority is to get teachers of core subject areas in classrooms, Carr said.
District officials still are working out how best to plan for future growth.