Many state and national economic indexes may be struggling to climb out of the basement, but enrollment in the Fayette County Public Schools just keeps going through the roof.
Enrollment rose by more than 1,000 students this year, district officials say. That comes on top of an increase of more than 700 students last year, which followed a jump of more than 630 in the 2008-2009 school year.
Overall, Superintendent Stu Silberman says Fayette enrollment is up by more than 4,250 students since 2003-04, the year before he joined the Fayette County Schools. The system was serving 33,746 students back then. This year, it is educating more than 38,000.
To put that into perspective, Fayette's enrollment growth since '03-04 is roughly equivalent to adding two new high schools, five new middle schools or seven new elementary schools.
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The growth already is squeezing many schools. And Silberman says that if enrollment goes up by another thousand next year, Fayette County might have to install more portable classrooms or even rent extra space to accommodate the growth.
"I think we're getting close to it becoming a real problem," he said.
Silberman notes, for example, that four of Fayette's five high schools already are more than 90 percent full. Three high schools — Bryan Station, Henry Clay and Dunbar — are at or above 100 percent capacity.
The situation is much the same at the middle and elementary school levels. The most extreme example is Beaumont Middle School, which is at 108 percent capacity, according to district numbers.
Overall, 2010 enrollment is greater than in 2006 at all but 11 of Fayette County's 50 schools, officials say.
Silberman attributes the sharply rising enrollment mainly to a general increase in Fayette County's population.
"I think the big portion of it is coming from the fact that there are just more families moving into Lexington," he said.
"The economy might be coming into it, in that more of the new people would have gone into private schools if the economy had been better. But we do think that overall population growth has been the major factor."
If there is a shift from private to public schools, it appears to be having minimal impact. Clayton Chambliss, headmaster at Sayre School, and Charles Baldecchi, head of The Lexington School, said their enrollments have stayed flat or fallen only slightly since the economy went sour.
According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Fayette County's population reached 296,545 last year, up more than 36,000 since 2000.
"It definitely is having an impact on us in terms of our facilities," Silberman said.
For example, growth in the Clays Mill Road corridor has packed several schools in that area, prompting Fayette County to push ahead with a new elementary school on Keithshire Way. The new school, named Wellington Elementary, is scheduled to open in fall 2011.
To make way for Wellington, the school system altered attendance boundaries for several surrounding schools earlier this year. It also adjusted attendance boundaries for some schools in the Masterson Station area to ease overcrowding there.
District officials say several other things have helped them accommodate the enrollment growth.
Expanded capacity added over the past few years at Liberty, William Wells Brown and Sandersville elementary schools and at Bryan Station High School has helped take in some of the growth, they say. Some growth also is being absorbed by new schools and programs — such as The Learning Center, the Opportunity Middle College program, and the Locust Trace Agriscience Farm set to open in fall 2011. The district's student continuation program has helped by allowing schools that are already full to distribute new students to other nearby schools that are short of capacity, officials say.
But more direct steps may be necessary.
The district already is planning a new elementary school east of Interstate 75 to help handle growth in the Athens-Chilesburg area.
Silberman said a new high school also might be necessary, although the district's facilities plan doesn't call for one. The plan is scheduled to be updated in about two years.
In the nearer term, however, Silberman said Fayette might have to use more portable classrooms or even rent space if it gets another big enrollment jolt in 2011-2012. About six schools already are relying on portables to accommodate students.
"We hate to have to use more portables, but that's something we might have to look at," Silberman said. "There are places out there where we could rent space. We have looked at a few, although we're not at that point yet. We're trying to be pro-active."