The growth in Champaign County's "suburban" school districts is fairly small percentage-wise, but school officials say that doesn't tell the whole story.
Case in point: Mahomet-Seymour's enrollment has been relatively flat, with 26 more students last year than in 1998-99. But it actually took in 100 new students this year alone. The district has become more transient, with more families moving in and out as they transfer jobs, Superintendent John Alumbaugh said.
Alumbaugh started tracking enrollment changes about five years ago, when the district's first-grade enrollment took an unexpected jump over the half-day kindergarten numbers. A few of the new students, "but not a lot," were families who had sent their children to full-day kindergarten elsewhere, then returned to Mahomet for first grade, Alumbaugh said. What he found was that half of the 20 to 25 new first-graders were from Champaign, both public and private schools.
The same is true of new students throughout the elementary grades, he said. Half come from Champaign, and the rest come from all over the country – many of them children of professionals from Atlanta, Houston or Ann Arbor, Mich., taking new jobs at the University of Illinois or Champaign-Urbana's hospitals.
"The one thing we've noticed is just a lot of people doing what we call school-shopping," Alumbaugh said. "We try to cater to that. When people say they want to come and visit the schools, we encourage them to do that. A lot of people have spent lots and lots of time looking at area schools on Web sites.
"I don't buy into all the reasons that people say they want to leave Champaign schools," said Alumbaugh, a former Champaign school administrator whose wife still teaches in Champaign. "But obviously people are going somewhere."
St. Joseph Schools Superintendent Todd Pence estimates a quarter of his new students come from C-U. The rest are families moving to the area from out of town, and they like both the quality of the school district and the lower housing costs. Most St. Joseph residents commute to jobs in Champaign, he said.
"They're shopping the schools, but school is just a part of it. They're choosing the town where they want to live, the cost of housing, safety issues – all those things coming into play," Pence said.
The district has seen steady growth for about five years, building a new middle school in that time, and enrollment is up by another 40 students this year. About 800 new homes have gone up the last nine years in the Crestlake subdivision, and developers are planning another 500-home subdivision that could generate another 250 students over five years, he said.
Likewise, housing development is booming in Tolono and other towns in southern Champaign County's Unit 7 district, where enrollment has climbed by 80 students since 1998-99. Superintendent Michael Shonk believes several factors explain the district's growth, from small class sizes and strong test scores to affordable housing, low taxes and the district's proximity to C-U. It's also built three new schools in recent years, replacing outmoded buildings in several communities.
"Within a maximum of 20 minutes you can be anywhere in Champaign-Urbana living here in one of our communities," Shonk said. "I live five minutes from the airport. That's an advantage."
The new students aren't necessarily coming from Champaign schools, he said. The entire area is seeing growth, he said, and families look at many factors besides schools in deciding where to live: medical care, commuting time, churches, recreation, athletic and cultural events, and family ties.
"It's hard to pinpoint one specific reason," he said.
He hasn't noticed a surge of families disenchanted with Champaign schools – even from nearby Savoy, where residents are pushing for a new school. Only one or two families from outside the district pay the $6,956 tuition to send their children to Unit 7 schools, and they're usually already moving there.
Shonk isn't sure what impact, if any, a new public school in Savoy would have on his district. Families still would have to decide where to send their children to middle school and high school, he said.
"I think all the school districts in this area are fine districts that have a lot to offer. We all have our individual problems, whether it's financial or whether it's equity," Shonk said.