Enrollment is 'bubbling' over in Champaign

2008 demographic study failed to predict large amount of growth occurring at kindergarten, elementary school level

CHAMPAIGN — Lillian Plankell will be a kindergartner this fall at Champaign's South Side Elementary, and she'll be a member of a class that's expected to set record enrollment numbers in the school district.

Lillian is already familiar with the school because her older brother goes there, and she has attended an event where she showed teachers she knows her colors and can write her name, said her mom, Amy Plankell.

"She's been there, so she's met the teachers," Plankell said. "There's a lot of (younger) siblings coming this year, so she knows a lot of people already."

There will also be kindergartners she doesn't know, Plankell said, because South Side is one of several schools that will have a "bubble" kindergarten classroom. That means that it will have a third kindergarten classroom this year, but not necessarily next year.

Lillian and other South Side kindergartners will not be the only ones learning in a "bubble" classroom this fall. The Champaign school district is experiencing unexpected growth in elementary enrollment, especially at the kindergarten level.

Kindergarten enrollment in Champaign schools has gone up for the last three years, as has elementary enrollment (through fifth grade) as a whole. The school district didn't expect such a large increase, because a 2008 demographic study predicted only a 4.5 percent elementary enrollment increase through this year, and then a 1.3 percent decrease over the following five years.

Instead, kindergarten enrollment in the Champaign schools is up more than 17 percent since 2002, and the school district is expecting 821 kindergartners next fall, which beats last year's record of 803.

Elementary enrollment as a whole has increased more than 7 percent.

More bubbles

To deal with the increases, the school district is adding bubble classrooms for kindergartners and first-graders. These include kindergarten classrooms at South Side and Bottenfield schools and a new kindergarten classroom at Robeson Elementary that will begin a bilingual program there.

The school district also added a bubble first-grade classroom in the gifted program at Dr. Howard and another first-grade bubble classroom at Barkstall Elementary.

Also in May, the school board approved the construction of two more classrooms at the new Carrie Busey Elementary in Savoy, which are scheduled to be done next spring. The project will cost about $1.1 million and be paid for both with money from the facilities sales tax and school district reserves.

School board member Kristine Chalifoux has been studying the issue of enrollment increases and what they'll mean in the long term for the school district's buildings. (Chalifoux is an architect by profession and emphasizes that her research reflects her own opinions.)

Chalifoux used census data to project what will happen if enrollment grows by 1 percent each year and found that Champaign's schools will start to reach capacity by 2016 or 2017 at the high schools, by 2017 or 2018 at the middle schools and by 2020 in the elementary schools if the school district were willing to use the elementary school on Kirby Avenue (the former Carrie Busey Elementary, which is housing Westview this year and a couple of other schools in coming years because of renovations).

The board agreed at its June retreat to have a committee put together a list of facility needs and options.

The school district is also planning to hire a public-engagement firm to find out what community members support.

School board members have expressed concern about what rising enrollment could mean for plans to build a new high school.

Chalifoux said the school district is working to re-establish the group that studied facilities when the school district did its "Great Schools, Together" strategic plan, and that will lead to a public conversation as well. She said the June death of the school district's Chief Operating Officer Gene Logas has slowed that progress.

"I hope the public is patient as the district works through this and is ready to really begin developing a plan for the future of our buildings," Chalifoux said.

While the school district completed a demographic study in April 2008, it hasn't exactly proven accurate.

The study predicted changes in enrollment based on several assumptions, some of which were:

— While an economic recovery wasn't expected within 18 months, there would be no national, state or local recession over the following 10 years. While the Great Recession ended in summer 2009, the recovery has been weak.

— Unemployment in the Champaign metropolitan area wouldn't go above 6 percent in the following 10 years. In fact, the Champaign metro area's unemployment rate has stayed above 6 percent since January 2009.

— Sales of existing homes in the district would remain at the same levels as in April 2008. But while area home sales did hold steady in 2009, they fell in 2010 and 2011.

— Private school enrollments would remain constant. However, self-reported figures show enrollment down at most private schools in Champaign-Urbana.

Enrollment boom not universal

While Champaign enrollment has been going up, the trend is not necessarily the same in all Champaign County schools.

Urbana's enrollment, according to the state board of education, went down about 3.9 percent between the 2006-07 school year and the 2011-12 school years, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

The Ludlow elementary school district's enrollment went down the most in the county, about 25.5 percent in the last five years.

State data show that St. Joseph's elementary school district enrollment has gone up the most, about 7.5 percent between the 2006-07 school year and the 2011-12 school year.

Champaign is fourth from the top, with total enrollment going up about 1.4 percent over the last five years, according to data from the state.

There's also some evidence that private school enrollment in the Champaign-Urbana area might be going down, according to data from the state from the 2006-07 and 2010-11 school year.

At 10 well-known private schools in Champaign and Urbana, enrollment is down about 9 percent, with enrollment going down at Campus Middle School For Girls, St. John Lutheran School, Holy Cross School, St. Matthew Catholic School and Calvary Baptist Christian Academy.

Enrollment went up slightly (2 percent or less) over those five years at Judah Christian School and University Primary School, with a 7.4 percent increase at Countryside School and an 11.1 percent increase at the High School of St. Thomas More.

Private schools volunteer that information to the state, said spokeswoman Mary Fergus. As a result, the state has enrollment numbers for Champaign private school Next Generation for the 2006-07 school year, but not the 2010-11 school year.

Champaign's growing enrollment is following a national trend, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"Public elementary enrollment is projected to continue a pattern of annual increases through 2019," according to the center, which said 2019 is the last year for its projections, and secondary enrollment is expected to go up, too.

"Total public elementary and secondary enrollment is projected to set new records every year from 2010 to 2019," said a statement on enrollment from the center.

It's possible that increasing numbers of infants through 5-year-olds specifically in Champaign and Savoy are fueling higher elementary enrollments in Champaign.

In the county as a whole, that age group grew 12 percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, said Andrew Levy, a planner and sustainability coordinator for the Regional Planning Commission.

In Champaign and Savoy, that age group grew 32 percent, said Lacey Rains Lowe, a Champaign city planner, while the total population grew 22 percent.

A more positive perception?

As she studies enrollment in Champaign, Chalifoux said she's also keeping in mind anecdotal evidence that community members have more faith in the public school district.

"When I got on the board six years ago, we rarely heard positive news about our schools in the media or in schoolyard conversations," Chalifoux said. "Now, I hear much more positive information than negative. I also know many people who send their kids to private school. Few say they send them there because of bad public schools. Rather, they talk about wanting the religious component."

Chalifoux said she hears from parents whose children attend a neighboring school district, who "have as much negative to say about their schools as I hear about our own," Chalifoux said. "This is all different from six years ago."

Chalifoux said, in her own opinion, she believes rising enrollment reflects a combination of other factors along with perception, including "actual increased performance of our schools, the improved elementary facilities, population, are just a few," she said.

Chalifoux said that in her opinion, she knows things could change, as far as enrollment, "but we do need to be prepared for any contingency."

"If we do not have a plan, we could be left (scrambling) to make things work," Chalifoux said. "If we have a plan and don't need it, we can always leave things as they are."

Meanwhile, Amy Plankell worries about what an extra kindergarten classroom at South Side might mean for things like art, music and physical education for her daughter, she said. Still, she said, her son has had great experiences at the school, and she and her husband are strong supporters of public schools in general.

"There wasn't a doubt in our mind" that their kids would go to public school, Plankell said.

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