Since year-round schools opened a little more than three weeks ago, Wake County schools have been flooded with an average of 200 families per day—more than 3,000 in all—visiting its student assignment office.
An enrollment snapshot Monday showed Wake with 151,391 students—a number that may change considerably. It’s also 1,000 more than the initial projection, and it puts Wake’s growth levels back to those seen before the recession hit.
High-level administrators have been helping staff in the student assignment office deal with the increased traffic; the office has had to shut its doors to new families by mid-afternoon each day.
School officials say the high volume of traffic through the student assignment office has come mostly from families who are just moving to Wake County or are moving within the district.
This is the first year families must register at the central office rather than at individual schools—a result of the controlled-choice assignment plan, which allows families to choose from a list of five schools, instead of providing an assignment based on address.
Susan Pullium from the Office of Student Assignment told the Record it was difficult to predict the number of families who would come through central office because registration had always been at individual schools.
“We hadn’t tried to centralize registration for years. We had been allowing families to register at school sites for so long,” she said. “From a percentage factor of the total number of students enrolled, I think it’s to be expected.”
Pullium said she expects another spike when traditional-calendar schools start Aug. 27.
During peak growth between 2004 and 2007, Wake enrolled 5,000 to 7,500 new students per year. During quieter periods, like those since 2008, the district added around 3,000 students per year.
This year the growth rate will be back above 5,000, school officials say. But it’s still unclear what has driven the unexpected increase in enrollment.
“Is the economy improving more than when we did the earlier projection?” asked Nicole Kaiser, the debt and capital director with Wake County.“Was the choice plan a factor?”
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She will only be able to begin answering these questions after traditional calendar school begins on Aug. 27 and 20-day enrollment numbers are finalized.
Kaiser works closely with the school system to project the number of students each year. Last year they came within 30 students of predicting the number.
This year’s spike could point to an irregularity that occurred after predictions were made.
For instance, the tax base and sales tax revenues in Wake County grew more than in recent years, which could point to an uptick in the economy.
But the impact of the choice plan is also still unknown and could increase the number of students attending public school.
Roughly 17 percent of students attend private, charter or home schools in Wake County. For the past 10 years that number hasn’t shifted by more than a percent, but the choice plan may have brought new families to the public school marketplace.
Some school officials have also suggested that some families may have participated in choice, but still plan on attending a private or charter school. Pullium said she doesn’t believe that phenomenon will represent a significant portion of the population.
“Parents have been really good about letting us know if they are going to attend school somewhere else,” she said.
The Record interviewed seven families who were waiting to be helped at the Office of Student Assignment last Thursday.
As school system officials suggested, five of the families were completely new to the district or moving within the county. However, two of the families simply didn’t participate in the choice process.
Nichole Reales knew she was supposed to choose because her other child brought home a note from school. She waited, she said, because she wanted to make sure both children went to the same school.
While waiting didn’t improve her chances, seats were still available at her school of choice and she was able to enroll her child.
Reales said the process was frustrating, but that she was content with visiting the central office.
“I would’ve just had to go to the school otherwise,” she said.
Erica Formont was only moving her family within the district, but came to the central office to secure bus transportation.
She had been waiting for two hours when we spoke to her.
“I’m happy with my assignment, just not the process,” she said. “It’s very cumbersome at this point. I don’t understand.”
The new process was also somewhat daunting for Octavia Davis, a parent of three. Rather than participating in choice, she came to register her children at central office.
“This is just different,” she said of the prospect of choosing schools and registering at central office. “I mean, there aren’t problems here. It’s just new.”