Enrollment falls in Frederick, Clarke; city sees small rise

Posted: October 31, 2013

The Winchester Star

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WINCHESTER — Enrollment is down this year in Frederick and Clarke counties, while the Winchester school division registered minimal growth.

Each year, the Virginia Department of Education collects statistics on the number of students enrolled in public schools on Sept. 30.

Enrollment drives how much state funding a division will receive.

In Frederick County, 13,048 students in kindergarten through 12th grade were enrolled on Sept. 30 — a slight drop from last year’s 13,066.

Assistant Superintendent for Administration Al Orndorff said he was “surprised” that enrollment dropped and that it was far off the division’s projection of 13,150.

The decrease in enrollment can partly be attributed to what Orndorff calls an anomaly.

Over the past 12 years, the number of live births in the area in a given year has always been fewer than the number of kindergarten students who actually showed up for school five years later.

In 2013, however, fewer kindergarten students showed up at school than projected.

This year, 898 kindergarten students showed up at school following 979 live births five years ago.

Officials expected more than 1,000 kindergarten students this year.

“I can’t tell you where the students have gone,” said Orndorff, who added that he believes the division will soon begin to see gradual growth.

“We don’t think the flat trend or downward trend will continue,” he said.

Enrollment is expected to reach 13,600 in five years and roughly 14,250 in 10 years.

In Clarke County, division enrollment dropped from 2,043 last year to 1,996.

Superintendent Mike Murphy said there are a number of possible reasons for this: the division didn’t get many transfers from private schools, there is an uptick in home-schooling because parents don’t want their children taking the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, and a lack of jobs and houses in the area.

“This is not a desirable place if you’re not upper-middle-class and above,” he said. “Families are withdrawing to other school divisions in order to find affordable housing and jobs.”

When the Hermitage and Battlefield Estates subdivisions were built in Berryville in 2005, the number of building permits totaled 221 that year, according to Brandon Stidham, county planning director. In that time period, division enrollment was as high as 2,200.

After the recession hit, enrollment steadily decreased, along with the number of building permits (this year, there were 24).

Murphy also said the death rate for the county is higher than its birth rate and that as more land is put into conservation easements, it “drives away more young families.”

“Clarke County is getting older by the minute,” he said.

In Winchester, school enrollment in September was 4,167 — up two students from last year.

“Obviously it’s very slight growth, but we anticipate continuing to grow,” said Steve Muller, director of technology, who added that the lack of growth over the past year is “not really a concern at this point.”

From 2011 to 2012, division enrollment grew by 3 percent.

Muller said last year the division worked with University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, which projected an enrollment of 4,244 for this year.

“Are we really surprised we didn’t hit the projection? No,” Muller said. “If we see the same pattern next year, we will talk to Weldon Cooper again to look at the numbers.”

Muller said it was “really hard to answer” why enrollment stayed steady this year.

“It’s difficult to do any kind of real analysis.”

According to Weldon Cooper, the total division enrollment is projected to reach 4,715 by 2022.

— Contact Rebecca Layne at rlayne@winchesterstar.com