When the school board and county commissioners agreed in 2017 to build McDeeds Creek Elementary and present a bond referendum for three more schools, public school enrollment had fallen by about 100 students for three years running and was not projected to turn around until 2020.
McDeeds Creek is now in its first year of operation. New and larger elementary schools in Aberdeen, Southern Pines, and Pinehurst are slated to open in the next two years — and by current indications, the students will be here to occupy them.
On Monday, the school board reviewed districtwide enrollment figures that reflected growth for the second year in a row. As of late September, Moore County Schools enrolled 12,835 students across its 24 campuses. That’s up 48 students from last year.
Moore County Schools’ enrollment hit an all-time high in 2013 and 2014 with about 12,900 students, but after that fell to about 12,600 in 2017. Typically, school districts use their enrollment a month into each school year as a consistent baseline for year-to-year comparisons.
“We use these numbers as we project into the next school year, as we look at our needs for staffing into the next school year, so it’s important that we have a very efficient and effective process to do this,” said Tim Locklair, Moore County Schools’ chief officer for academics and student support services.
With 150 more students in 2018 than the year before, the district logged enrollment growth for the first time after four years of decline. But the district did not anticipate that trend continuing this year, and predicted enrollment closer to 12,700. That’s underestimate came partly because the schools average the number of kindergarten students over the last three years to forecast kindergarten enrollment.
“The hardest thing to project is kindergarten, just because we don’t have anything to base it off of,” said Kate Faw, the district’s director for planning, accountability and research. “This year we added the complexities of a new school, McDeeds, which changes the membership at three schools drastically.”
McDeeds Creek has relieved the historically overburdened Sandhills Farm Life and Vass-Lakeview schools, and now growth in Whispering Pines and Vass is distributed among three schools.
McDeeds Creek, an 800-student building, now enrolls 472 students. Sandhills Farm Life has gone down from 740 students to 386, and Vass-Lakeview from 608 to 505. Combined, the three schools enroll 1,363 students — up 15 from last year.
A redistricting plan that the school board will consider approving on Monday would expand McDeeds Creek’s attendance area to add another 200 students by 2021.
Other significant shifts at individual schools include enrollment increases of 34 at Aberdeen Elementary and 35 at Crains Creek Middle. On the other side, Pinehurst Elementary — which opened this year on a temporary campus in Rassie Wicker Park as the schools prepare to demolish and replace the Dundee Road building — lost 28 students. Southern Pines Primary is down 35 students and Southern Pines Elementary’s enrollment fell by 23.
Though enrollment projections have played a major role in driving the school board’s redistricting discussions this year, administrative staff try to predict the coming year’s enrollment to ensure each school is appropriately staffed.
North Carolina allocates funding for teachers based on projected enrollment districtwide. Based on Day 20 enrollment, school systems can find themselves receiving more funding for additional students — or sending money back if enrollment falls far short.
“For us to stay within their planning allotment of resources, we have to be within 100 of that number and we are,” said Locklair. “We’re always looking to be within that range where the state doesn’t pull back resources as a result of not meeting your projection.”
The state also limits the size of classes in kindergarten through third grade. No individual class can exceed 22 students, and the state mandates a districtwide average class size no larger than 19 students in those grades.
Moore County Schools is also starting to focus on what administrators are calling “market share analysis” this year, or how many students are coming from local charter and private schools versus moving from outside of Moore County.
“That is not something that we had previously tracked. It is something that we are currently tracking,” said Faw. “As students enroll, if we are able to locate their previous school we’ll mark it as either private, charter or public so that we can start to analyze that data.”
The district also tracks charter school growth, because the county is obligated to fund charter schools at a level per student as the traditional public schools. With three charter schools now operating in Moore County, that funding comes to about $2 million per year from Moore County Schools’ budget.