With the 1999-2000 school year underway, Columbia County is seeing its slowest growth for student enrollment in 15 years.
"It's clear we've slowed in our growth, there's no doubt about that," said schools Superintendent Tommy Price.
In the fourth day of school, Columbia County had enrolled 18,243 students -- 206 students under its projections and only 6 students over its actual 1998-1999 enrollment. Last year, the school system gained 301 students.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we see another 100 students drift in, but 200, I doubt it," Mr. Price said. "We were expecting this year to be the smallest growth year we've had in some time."
Mr. Price said he's not sure what has caused the slowed growth. To project enrollment, the school system uses birth rates and enrollment numbers for the previous three school years.
The low growth actually is a relief for the system, which uses about 100 portable classrooms, Mr. Price said. With a new middle school under construction and an addition planned for Grovetown Elementary, a continued lull in enrollment will give the county a chance to catch up to the growth it has experienced over the years.
"We are going to be in the best shape we've been in in a long time," Mr. Price said.
The school system will continue to get its fair share of state dollars, regardless of a lull in enrollment, Mr. Price said. But if the slow growth continues, some capital outlay money the system receives as a fast-growing system could disappear. But Mr. Price expects the system's growth to increase in the next few years.
The biggest drop in enrollment this year was at the kindergarten level with 110 fewer students than expected. There were also surprises at specific schools. Evans Elementary, for example, was projected to have 24 fewer students than in 1998-1999. Instead, the school had 33 more than projected. And at Lakeside High School -- where growth was projected -- enrollment is down by 38 students. North Harlem Elementary has the biggest drop in enrollment, losing 44 students.
"We did not know we were going to be over our projected allotment until the week before school began," Evans Elementary Principal Amy Wright said. "We had a huge influx of families registering their children."
Ms. Wright said subdivisions around the school are starting to fill up and new construction has been occurring on Hereford Farm Road, both of which could contribute to the higher-than-expected enrollment.
The school system doesn't use home construction numbers as a factor in projecting enrollment because they're unpredictable, Mr. Price said. For example, school officials feared a new apartment complex on Bel Air Road would increase enrollment at Bel Air Elementary. Bel Air, however, has only six more students this year.
Other high-growth areas such as Riverside Elementary have begun to stabilize, somewhat. The Greenbrier schools, however, continue to see growth. In its fourth day, Greenbrier High had 64 students more than last year -- 19 over what was projected.
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