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Local: Education

Students flood into D.C.-area schools

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Photo - Students at Flora M. Singer Elementary School in Montgomery County (Graeme Jennings/Examiner)
Students at Flora M. Singer Elementary School in Montgomery County (Graeme Jennings/Examiner)
Local,Education,Lisa Gartner

The top-performing public school systems in Montgomery and Fairfax counties have been ballooning with students in the last several years, sending school officials scrambling to find more space and beg for

larger budgets to accommodate the influx of new faces. True to form, both school systems grew by more than 2,500 students this year, according to preliminary counts.

And this year, they're sharing the wealth.

More apples for teachers?
Enrollment grows across the Washington area:
  2011-12 2012-13 (current) Change
Alexandria City Public Schools 12,357 13,045 5.6%
Arlington County Public Schools 21,845 22,613 3.5%
D.C. Public Schools 45,191 45,835* 1.4%
District charter schools 31,562 35,019* 11.0%
Fairfax County Public Schools 177,506 180,282 1.6%
Montgomery County Public Schools 146,459 149,051** 1.8%
Prince George's County Public Schools 123,833 124,661** 0.7%
*The District's numbers are audited by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and usually are lower than the initial counts.
**The Maryland school systems' numbers are not considered final until they're reviewed by the state. However, these estimates are not expected to change significantly.

A decade of declining enrollment in Prince George's County Public Schools has seemingly come to end, with the suburban Maryland school system counting 828 more students than last year, school officials say.

In the District, an initial head count suggests the largest enrollment increase in 45 years -- if the numbers hold up come the official audit early next year -- fueled by another year of dramatic growth in the city's public charter schools.

The smaller school districts in Arlington and Alexandria grew this fall, too, adding hundreds more children to their rosters.

Younger families are moving into the area, particularly Hispanic women with higher birth rates and Asian families drawn to clusters of their immigrant populations, according to Larry Bizette, a demographer for Fairfax County Public Schools. New additions are also coming from the private schools, as parents' checkbooks are still red from the recession.

"At the forefront of every discussion we have, it's making sure we provide an education that our students can be proud of, that any kid attending private school would want to return to the public school system," said Monica Goldson, the acting chief operating officer of Prince George's County Public Schools.

Enrollment in Prince George's schools has been steadily dropping since 2004, as the system has worked to improve its test scores and reputation while competing for students with top-of-the-nation neighbors Montgomery and Fairfax counties. This year, about 124,660 students are in Prince George's seats, a small but noticeable increase from last year's 123,833. The numbers must be audited by the state's Education Department, but Goldson doesn't expect them to change. Larger enrollments among prekindergarten and kindergarten students are driving the increase, but Prince George's school officials will wait until later in the school year to look deeper into the trends behind the growth.

But even as Prince George's grows, it's not because it's stealing students from its neighbors: Fairfax County Public Schools grew from 177,506 students last October to a current head count of 180,282 students. Montgomery County Public Schools is hovering around 149,050 students, thousands above last year's roll call of 146,459 students.

"The Washington metropolitan area has gotten a lot younger," said Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy. "Older people have been moving out, younger people have been moving in and younger people have babies who end up going to school," he said.

Nowhere is that more clear than in the District, which is touting about 4,100 new students over last year, an increase of 5 percent and the city's largest enrollment increase in 45 years. The lion's share of that growth is in the city's public charter schools, which grew by 3,457 students, or 11 percent. D.C. Public Schools' initial count shows 644 new students.

"Every student in a charter school is there because his or her family chose that school," said Scott Pearson, executive director of the charter school board. "This growth reflects the high demand for public charter schools by D.C. families."

The official audit by the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education usually produces lower numbers than the October estimates, making it difficult to say whether D.C. Public Schools gained or lost students this school year. In the 2010-11 school year, the traditional school system's enrollment grew for the first time since 1969, but stagnated last year. Charter schools have been growing at a rate of about 8 percent each year.

lgartner@washingtonexaminer.com

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