School enrollment declines charted, but future debated

November 26, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014 

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer 

Both the Henry County and Martinsville school divisions have experienced large declines in school enrollment over the past decade. During the rest of this decade, some factors “may make it hard for any recovery” in their enrollments. 

That’s according to Hamilton Lombard, research specialist, demographics research group, at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

However, Martinsville City Public Schools Superintendent Pam Heath said enrollment projections the school division has received from a consultant show the city school division’s enrollment bottomed last school year and will rise by at least 8 percent by the 2019-20 school year. And so far this year, enrollment has increased, she said. 

Heath believes the area’s economy is rebounding, that school divisions and various other agencies and organizations are working hard to develop a work-force pipeline and to promote economic development, and she is hopeful for the area, she said. 

“I am optimistic about Martinsville’s future as well,” Lombard wrote in an email. “When I visited the city last month it had changed a good deal since I last visited a few years before.” 

Lombard takes issue with the enrollment projections by the consultant (Middle Cities Education Association) for the city schools.

“Middle Cities Education Association uses a good methodology as far as I saw. But I believe there is a significant problem with the birth numbers they used to make the projection. The number of births in Martinsville jumps from 146 in 2006 to 213 in 2007, a 46 percent increase, which is highly unlikely,” he said. 

“The number of children who enrolled in kindergarten five years after 2006 and 2007 was flat or declined,” he added. “The projection continues to use birth counts above 200, which is the main driver behind the higher projections.”

Lombard said Virginia’s system of independent cities makes getting accurate data difficult. Martinsville’s ZIP codes extend far into Henry County, so births easily can be counted as in the city when they actually are in the county. This is a problem statewide, he said. 

“For the population estimates we produce as well as the school enrollment projections, we use GIS software to get more accurate birth counts for Virginia’s counties and cities,” he added. GIS stands for geographic information system.

“I totally respect the Weldon Cooper Center,” Heath said. No matter which methods are used in projecting enrollment, they are estimates, she added. 

“We have received these predictions (from Middle Cities Education Association). At this point, our actual enrollments (this school year) are supporting the predictions,” she said.

MCPS’ enrollment declined from 2,611 in 2003, to 2,454 in 2008, to 2,126 in 2013, according to figures Lombard provided. That’s a decline of nearly 19 percent over 10 years. 

“Though enrollment in Martinsville has continued to decline, the rate of the decline has slowed in recent years as well,” Lombard wrote.

Heath said MCPS enrollment has been on the upswing. It was 2,119 on Sept. 30, 2013; 2,126 on March 30, 2014; 2,154 on Sept. 30; 2,174 at the end of October; and 2,182 on Friday morning. 

“We also have to consider our school system has a significant number of students who come from outside the city. We have an open enrollment policy. That’s a factor that cannot always be predicted,” Heath said.

Henry County Public Schools’ (HCPS) enrollment declined from 8,092 in 2003, to 7,264 in 2008, to 7,065 in 2013, according to figures Lombard provided. That’s a nearly 13 percent drop over 10 years. 

Lombard attributes the large declines in enrollment for both school systems over the last decade chiefly to families moving out of the area. However, he added, “Since the recession began, noticeably fewer families have been moving out of Henry County and its enrollment has stopped declining. The preliminary data that Henry County provided for this fall indicates its enrollment is slightly higher than it was in 2010.”

That may be due to an improving local economy. Another factor that has boosted enrollment in HCPS was the noticeable increase in the number of high school students who stayed in school to graduate, Lombard wrote. 

Jared Cotton, HCPS superintendent, wrote in an email that while the school division had an increase in enrollment this year, it had a slight decrease last year. “We are up about 150 students above projected this year. We were about 60 under the budgeted number last year,” he stated. He did not provide exact figures.

“We need to monitor this closely. ... I hope that we will be able to maintain our current enrollment or continue to increase,” he stated. 

HCPS continues to see an increase in the number of students staying enrolled through graduation, Cotton said. Though it’s hard to speculate why, he hopes students are remaining because of high-quality high school programs and opportunities, including programs offered through Patrick Henry Community College and New College Institute, and career and technical education courses.

“We also offer unique programs that are popular for students such as horticulture at (Magna Vista High School) and band, that is particularly popular at Bassett and is growing at MVHS. We also like to feel that students and their parents want to stay in (Henry County) as a result of the quality of our school division,” Cotton wrote. 

During the rest of this decade, some factors may make it difficult for any recovery in the two systems’ enrollments, wrote Lombard, who also was asked to comment on Patrick County Public Schools enrollment trends.

“Though the out migration of families has slowed or stopped, births declined considerably during the recession, particularly in Henry and Patrick counties. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of births in each county declined by over 20 percent. Since children born during the recession are just starting to be old enough to enroll in kindergarten and first grade, the consequences of the decline will continue for some years,” he wrote. 

HCPS hasn’t experienced a decline in kindergarten or first grade yet, but it did have lower enrollment in preschool at the start of the year, Cotton wrote. “Since preschool is not required, it is too early to tell if this is the result of declining enrollment.”

Patrick County schools’ enrollment was in the 2,580s and 2,570s from 2003 to 2008; and was 2,509 in 2009, 2,507 in 2010 and 2,510 in 2011. Enrollment increased to 2,590 in 2012 and 2,726 in 2013, according to numbers Lombard provided. 

He added that Patrick’s enrollment numbers during the last few years appear higher than they may be because that school division counts virtual students with its physical students. The virtual students are from throughout the state, Andrea Cassell, instructional coordinator for PCPS, said recently.

Patrick County Public Schools Superintendent William Sroufe said that, using the numbers above, excluding 106 virtual students, the Patrick schools had 2,484 students in 2012-13. Excluding 230 virtual students, the schools had 2,496 students in 2013-14. 

“We have had a slight increase without virtual,” he said. 


Select News Year: