Creative Growth

Dec. 1, 2001
As student enrollment climbs, schools and universities are building new spaces to stimulate and inspire students.

Like most school superintendents, Stephen Kleinsmith doesn't need much prompting to brag about his school district. The Nixa (Mo.) School District, just south of Springfield, Mo., has earned the state's highest level of accreditation. The board has been honored as one of the outstanding school boards in the state. In recent years, both the boys' and girls' basketball teams have won state championships.

So it makes perfect sense to Kleinsmith that more students are filling his classrooms.

“We're where everybody wants to live,” says Kleinsmith.

Well, not quite everybody — but a lot more than 10 years ago. From 1990 to 2000, the population of the Nixa School District grew nearly 97 percent, from 10,010 to 19,711. Student enrollment has likewise doubled in those 10 years — to more than 4,000 this fall.

What's happening in Nixa is being played out again and again in hundreds of school districts and colleges throughout the United States — large and small, east and west, north and south. Population growth is forcing schools to come up with more classroom space.

These booming areas — whether they're near a smaller Midwestern city like Springfield, Mo., an older, industrial city like Detroit, or a quickly growing city in the western part of the country like Phoenix — are having to build new schools as suburban developments push farther out from the city core and attract families with school-age children.

Finding space

Schools don't necessarily have to build new facilities to accommodate enrollment growth. They can cram more students into classrooms, convert specialty rooms or storage areas into additional learning spaces, fill their parking lots with portable facilities, or use year-round calendars or split schedules to increase a building's student capacity without adding space.

Many school districts have embraced those options, but plenty of others find those solutions unsatisfying. Larger enrollments can make classroom management more difficult; spaces designed for other uses make less-than-ideal classrooms; students and staff in portable facilities can feel disconnected from the rest of the school; and extended-year and split schedules can prove too disruptive to the lives of students, teachers and their families.

So despite costs that can be formidable, many schools opt for constructing new facilities as the most straightforward way to address their space needs.

For the last several years, an increasing number of institutions have been able to acquire the money to build the space they need. The most recent Official Education Construction Report (American School & University, May 2001) showed that school districts and colleges spent $36 billion in 2000 — more than twice what was shelled out five years earlier. The same report shows that U.S. schools and universities expect to spend $118 billion on construction in 2001 through 2003.

Not all of the money earmarked for construction has gone to projects that address enrollment growth, but much of it has. Since bottoming out in the mid-1980s, the number of elementary and secondary school children in the United States has risen steadily.

Throughout the United States, suburban sprawl has transformed quiet pastures into subdivisions buzzing with children. Many established districts have gained students, too, as families repopulate older neighborhoods. And ready or not, districts have to find classroom space for them.

According to the National Center For Education Statistics “Projection of Education Statistics to 2011,” public school enrollment in grades K to 8 climbed 6.3 percent from 1993-99; in grades 9 to 12, enrollment grew 11.8 percent.

Another government report, “Condition of America's Public School Facilities: 1999,” found that about one-quarter of U.S. school facilities were overcrowded, based on the capacity of their permanent instructional buildings and space.

The study showed that 36 percent of U.S. schools indicated that they used portable classrooms, and 20 percent reported using temporary instructional space. The reason, in most cases, was to alleviate overcrowding.

The projections indicate that the K-12 public school population will continue to climb until 2005, when it is expected to reach 47,536,000. In the south and west regions of the nation, growth will continue even longer. Many states in those regions — Georgia, Texas, California, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho — are expected to see enrollment growth through at least 2011.

Colleges and universities have been experiencing similar growth — the number of full-time students has climbed from about 7.1 million in 1986 to 8.8 million in 1999. The figures are projected to climb steadily through the next decade, to 10.7 million full-time college students in 2011.

For many schools, that means not only more classrooms and labs, but also residence halls for students who want to live on campus (sidebar, p 24).

On the edge

Since the 1980s, student enrollment in Detroit public schools has declined from about 215,000 to 161,000. But in the outer reaches of the metropolitan area, the last decade or more has been a period of growth.

Clarkston, Mich., about 40 miles northwest of Detroit, benefits from its location along the Interstate 75 corridor that runs northwest from Detroit to Flint. The steady development there has helped boost the enrollment in the Clarkston Community School District from about 5,500 in the late 1980s to more than 7,700 this fall.

“The I-75 corridor has really helped all the north suburban people to get home in a hurry,” says David Reschke, assistant superintendent in Clarkston. “We have had a lot of growth in residential population. We're very close to the Daimler Chrysler headquarters and Auburn Hills,” where the Detroit Pistons play basketball.

In 1994, the district built a new elementary school — Clarkston's first new school in 27 years. A $56 million bond issue in 1995 allowed the district to build a new high school, which opened for the 1998-99 school year.

“It's an outstanding facility,” says Reschke. “It has tremendous community support. It's a very high point of pride for our community.”

The former high school was converted to a middle school. In 1997, voters passed a $57 million bond issue that included money to build another elementary school, which opened in 1999, and to convert the former middle school into a community education center.

As growth continues, the district is looking at ways to address its space needs short of building another school. The high school is at capacity, one middle school and some elementary buildings are at or over capacity, while other buildings are well below their maximum size.

“We have some urgent space needs because of uneven distribution,” says Reschke. “We are looking at a variety of solutions.”

Among those are raising class sizes, reworking attendance boundaries, reconfiguring which grades attend which schools, and adding onto buildings.

Growth in the valley

From 1990 to 2000, the city of Phoenix grew more than 34 percent. Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, grew 44 percent. So it's no surprise that the Deer Valley Unified School District, which serves the northern parts of Phoenix and suburbs north of the city such as Glendale, has been coping with the space crunch that has resulted.

“In 1985, we had about 10,000 students,” says Kent Davis, the district's associate superintendent for administrative services. “Now we are at about 28,000.”

That extraordinary growth shows no signs of abating. Davis says that less than 20 percent of Deer Valley's 367 square miles is developed, and many subdivisions are springing up along Interstate 17, which slices through the district.

“Based just on known developments, we think we'll be at 38,000 students in five years and 48,000 in 10 years,” he says.

To accommodate the influx of children, Deer Valley plans to build at least two schools a year for the next seven years. Two elementary schools opened this year; construction is beginning on an elementary and high school to open in 2002; and a site recently has been selected for yet another high school — the district's fifth — that will open in 2002.

Most districts, even ones with a healthy tax base such as Deer Valley, would find it a struggle to come up with the money to build so many schools. And, up until a few years ago, it would have been difficult for Deer Valley. But in 1998, Arizona overhauled the way it pays for school construction. The Arizona School Facilities Board was created to provide state funds for new schools.

“We can build schools more quickly because the state is paying,” says Davis. “We don't have to borrow the money, so it doesn't affect our bonding capacity.”

For Deer Valley, one drawback of the state's construction program is that schools built with state money must follow standards set by the state. Deer Valley wants its facilities to exceed state standards and have larger classrooms, added security systems, expanded playgrounds, energy-management systems, and more football stadiums, gymnasiums and performing-arts centers.

So district voters approved a $77.5 million bond issue in November that will allow Deer Valley to build facilities with those additional amenities. At the same time, voters rejected a $43 million proposal that would have paid for textbooks, technology upgrades and buses. Deer Valley's growing tax base will allow the district to issue the bonds without increasing taxes.

Davis says the bond package enables the district to improve existing schools so that those facilities are comparable to the newly built schools.

As they build new schools, Deer Valley officials try to improve on each one. “When you build two or three schools a year, your expertise is greater,” says Davis. “We learn more each time. We try to make each school look a little better than the last one.”

Booming in the heartland

Nixa, Mo., might not get the attention that other fast-growing areas receive, but that doesn't make the school enrollment boom there any less real. In the last 30 years, the area has evolved from a rural area to a suburb. Nixa has become a bedroom community for Springfield, and people are still coming.

District projections show that student enrollment will increase by 200 to 300 students for at least the next five years. The newcomers, as well as those already ensconced in the community, have been willing to support the school district's need for more space.

“We've been able to pass every bond issue,” says Kleinsmith.

A 1998 bond issue enabled Nixa to build a new $16 million high school, which opened in 2000. This year, a new elementary school opened, and a site for another elementary — the district's sixth — has been purchased.

The former high school, which many people in the community have strong affection for, has been converted to the district's junior-high school.

“We don't want to abandon a building that folks have ties to,” says Kleinsmith.

The former junior high has become home to the district's alternative program for junior- and senior-high-school students.

One factor hampering Nixa's strategic planning for growth is the debt limit imposed by the state of Missouri. School districts may borrow no more that 15 percent of their assessed value. That means that even though the district has determined facility needs several years into the future, it has to place piecemeal proposals on the ballot to avoid bumping up against the debt limit.

“In two years, we'll do a bond issue to expand the high school,” says Kleinsmith. “We built the shell for the third floor, and we'll need about $1 million to finish it. Four years from now, we'll have another bond issue for one more elementary.”

Because the student population is climbing faster than the district's tax base, Nixa has found it challenging to keep its budget and tax rate in check as it addresses its growth. Kleinsmith says the problem has eased somewhat after the district worked with the county assessor to make sure that new properties are added to the tax rolls on a timely basis.

As growth continues, the district will look at adding classrooms to elementary schools and changing grade configurations to distribute space more efficiently. Eventually, the growth will subside, but no signs point that way yet.

“That's not on the horizon for at least 10 years,” says Kleinsmith.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

SIDEBAR: More space, better space

When college campuses resumed classes this fall, many students had a surprise waiting for them. Or, more accurately, the surprise was what was not waiting for them — a room in a residence hall.

Schools scrambled to set up beds in study lounges, or place three students in rooms meant for two. Some universities sent overflow students to hotels and others offered incentives to freshmen that deferred enrollment for a year.

Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, was one of the schools that had to find short-term solutions this fall. Terry Webb, the university's director of residential services, said the school converted some lounges to student rooms, and assigned roommates to resident assistants, who normally have had rooms to themselves. But for the long term, the solution to school-housing shortages is to build more residence halls.

That's what Kent State is doing — it has broken ground on two residence halls that are to be completed for the 2002-03 school year. When the $400 million master plan is completed in 2019, Kent State's residence halls will be able to accommodate 20 percent more students — 7,200 compared with 6,000 now. In addition, existing residence halls will be modernized as the new facilities serve as “swing space,” says Webb.

Phase one of the plan calls for the construction of six 200-bed buildings — two each in 2002, 2003 and 2004. The school sought out the opinions of students before deciding on how to design the new and renovated rooms.

Besides giving the university more capacity to house its incoming freshman classes, which have grown by about 50 percent in the last five years, Kent State hopes that the amenities offered in the new or upgraded housing will persuade older students to continue living on campus.

“It's incredibly convenient to live on campus,” says Webb. “You're closer to your classes, and you don't have to mess with furnishings and landlords, washing dishes and buying groceries.”

SIDEBAR: Enrollment keeps growing

School and university enrollment will reach new heights over the next decade: K-12 Colleges/Universities 1986 45,205,000 12,505,000 1991 47,322,000 14,359,000 1996 51,217,000 14,368,000 2001 53,065,000* 15,300,000* 2006 53,372,000* 16,533,000* 2011 53,026,000* 17,688,000* *projections Source: Projection of Education Statistics to 2011, U.S. Department of Education
About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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