Capacity projects, analytics help ACPS grapple with growing enrollment

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

As families prepare to return to school this fall by buying pencils, notebooks and calculators, Alexandria City Public Schools officials are again bracing for a bump in the number of students on the rolls.

But after previous enrollment spikes, this time ACPS says it’s ready, thanks to a bevy of construction projects — large and small — and a more thorough examination of enrollment figures.

School officials said current projections for the 2014-2015 school year predict a total of 14,111 students from pre-K to grade 12, up from 13,568 pupils last fall.

“We are right on track with the kind of growth we expect year over year,” said facilities planner Laurel Hammig.

Director of technology services Marya Runkle said the district is getting better and better at projecting what the city’s enrollment will be.

“[Enrollment] in the school system from pre-K to 12th grade — that has been within a single digit, if not much smaller [off from] our projection,” Runkle said.
That projection system also takes future development and redevelopment into account, Runkle said. School officials will know when to expect an influx of students from major residential projects like Potomac Yard, Beauregard and the like.

“If, for example, a big chunk of Potomac Yard was supposed to be finished, say, in 2016, the projection numbers will now include the increase in enrollment we would expect from that development project,” she said.

On top of a sharper prediction system, Hammig said schools officials keep much closer tabs on the number of incoming students over the summer.

“We meet every two weeks starting in March so we can get staffing and hire quality teachers early so we have people in place,” she said. “We want to ensure we’re not getting to October only to find out we need a teacher or don’t need one. This is the third year we’ve worked within this team environment, and it’s been very helpful.”

Hammig said since the last major spike in 2010, the district has improved its physical capacity in several ways, from the reconstruction of Jefferson-Houston to the building of additional classrooms at several elementary schools.

And with the entire district’s administrative staff moving to its new headquarters on Braddock Place, offices previously located at George Washington Middle School can revert to sixth grade classrooms.

Individual principals still have the option, approved by the school board in 2013, to increase their class sizes by two students if necessary. That means standard class sizes range from 20 to 22 students for kindergarten, up to between 24 and 26 students for grades three through five.

“But that’s still among the lowest class sizes in the area,” Runkle stressed.

The system will continue bolstering its capacity in the coming years, with several classroom addition projects approved for the next couple of years in the latest ACPS capital budget, Hammig said. The capital budget also allocates construction money for the reconstruction of Patrick Henry Elementary School to serve pre-K through eighth grade students.

“We have construction money scheduled for that in fiscal 2016, so it would become available next summer,” she said. “But the exact timing is still being worked out.”

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