Enrollment in Fayette County Public Schools continues to grow by several hundred students or more annually — roughly the equivalent of a whole new school every year — seemingly with no end in sight.
Fayette County had 33,481 students in the 2005-06 school year. By last year, enrollment had jumped 10 percent, to 36,775.
This year, it's up 2 percent, to 37,365. If you include children in the district's Early Start program, enrollment exceeds 38,000.
The rapid expansion has left school administrators weighing how best to serve students — whether to spend money on buildings or on services — and has left students with crowded conditions at several schools.
For example, high schools director Mike McKenzie said Henry Clay High School, Lexington's largest with more than 2,200 students, is using portable classrooms to help absorb the load. Some high schools are adding lunch periods or having teachers "float;" that is, to use another teacher's classroom when it is unoccupied.
Some elementary schools also rely on portables. And the district is using its student continuation plan to allow full schools to distribute new students among other schools nearby that have unused capacity.
Glendover Elementary shifted its Early Start students to other schools to free up space for K-5 classes, Fayette County spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said. Meanwhile, extra space was created in the renovation of Tates Creek Middle School to help it absorb more students.
Fayette Superintendent Tom Shelton said enrollment growth is manageable, at least for now. But he says the continuing influx of new students means that the school system — and the community — soon will face some complex decisions about how many schools Lexington should have in order to accommodate all the kids, how big the schools should be, and how instruction should be delivered to meet students' needs in a rapidly changing education environment.
In some ways, rapid enrollment growth is a good thing, said Shelton, who took over as superintendent Sept. 1.
"I think it shows the strength of our community and our school system that people want to be here and want their children in the system," he said. "We have some school districts that are facing declining enrollment and having to close schools."
But the growth has brought headaches.
"Quite frankly, I think the growth is kind of managing us right now," Shelton said. "What we need is to set the goal of being as pro-active as possible to where we're managing the growth.
"I think the only way we can get there is to have a conversation at every level about what we want for our kids. We have to drive that conversation based on instruction, not on construction. And the entire community should be involved."
Fayette school officials haven't conducted a formal analysis of where all the new students are coming from, but they cite some likely factors.
"They do seem to be coming into the elementary schools and matriculating up through the system," said Mary Wright, the Fayette schools' chief operating officer. "We think it's a matter of more people moving into Lexington who are of the age to have children in school.
"And I think we've also had some kids from private schools who have come back into our system."
A sixth high school?
Total high school enrollment in Fayette County is down slightly from last year, but that hasn't done much to help the situation at those grade levels.
Henry Clay, Bryan Station and Paul Laurence Dunbar are all over capacity. Lafayette is slightly under capacity, and Tates Creek could accommodate more than 200 additional students before it hits capacity.
Adding more schools, however, could be challenging. Building a high school, for example, would require about 50 acres for the main school, athletic facilities, parking and other needs, officials say. And finding that kind of site in the Urban Services Area isn't easy.
"There's just not 50 acres out there that you could come by easily," Wright says.
Officials also said land prices tend to rise when it becomes known that the system is seeking a site.
The school system's facilities plan makes no provision for a new high school. And Wright said it would take four or five years to put a new high school in the next plan, get it approved, find a site and design and build the school.
The only new school planned now is an elementary east of Interstate 75 to meet the rapid growth in that area.
Shelton, however, contends that just putting up more buildings won't solve Lexington's educational needs.
"I think we do need a sixth high school, simply because our schools are too large, in my opinion," he said. "But even if we had a sixth high school right now, we'd still need to be looking for other, more creative opportunities.
"The reality is that we won't solve all this with bricks and mortar."
Shelton envisions more of what he calls "third-generation learning" opportunities for students. He says these could include more school-within-a-school programs, such as Dunbar's Math, Science & Technology Center, which allow students to pursue specialized interests in smaller groups. Or they could involve more efforts like Fayette's Middle College Program, in which public school students can earn credits outside traditional classrooms.
"I know it might scare people, but the fastest-growing university in the country now is the University of Phoenix, which is entirely online," Shelton said. "I'm not suggesting we should go entirely online, because I still believe the teacher-student interface is the most beneficial experience in learning.
"But I do think we have to look at all of those, and maybe some blended option of those."
Overall, Shelton contends, the future is likely to require smaller, not larger, schools.
"The reality is that if you look at traditional high schools, especially schools of 2,000 students or more ... you can't expect 2,000 students in today's society to all have the same type of educational experience," he said.
Whatever way the school system goes, the community should be involved in the decision, Shelton says.
"We're going to need a big conversation with the whole community, with everybody's buy-in and support," he said. "I hope people will be willing to submit ideas and suggestions."
Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3255.