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School Enrollment Up 11 Percent; Ahmann Undecided On Future

Decatur school enrollment rose by 11 percent, double the system's projections, and prompted the superintendent to create a committee to study the system's growth.

Decatur schools opened with 11 percent more students than when they closed in the spring, double what the school system had expected, and the school superintendent wants to appoint a committee to study growth projections.

The system’s enrollment is 3,233, Associate Superintendent Thomas Van Soelen told the Decatur School Board Tuesday night. The city system’s enrollment actually dropped one percent, after students who had been expected to attend the system didn’t show, Van Soelen said.

The largest growth was a whopping 24 percent increase in the system’s kindergarten class, which enrolled 352 students by Tuesday, more than the 284 the system had projected, or the 298 the system had in May, Van Soelen said. He explained the system’s projections are based on birthrates and a cohort ratio.

“In reality, we projected for 284, but we planned for more,” explained Van Soelen. “We had enough kindergarten teachers.”

Superintendent Phyllis Edwards proposed forming a committee to study enrollment projections and make recommendations on how the system should prepare for larger enrollments. She also wants to have an “engagement committee” to recommend when the superintendent should gather public input, and when she can act on her own authority.

The committee would counsel the superintendent on “what are the types of decisions that I need to go out to community for, and what are the paramaters I have,” to make executive decisions in the system, Edwards said. She said she planned to ask school board members to serve on the committees.

The school system’s larger enrollment sparked a lively community discussion last week on local blog Decatur Metro, which reported preliminary projections.  Edwards said the system has enrolled “quite a number of homeless” students, although she did not specify how many.

The enrollment bump isn't coming from parents fleeing Atlanta public schools, Edwards said.

"A portion are coming from surrounding areas, and we have a lot of students coming from out of state, and from out of the country," Edwards said. "We have a lot of folks who were in private school who are now coming to us."

The system accepted 176 tuition students, 62 more than last year, Van Soelen said. Without the extra students, the projected enrollment increase would have been 9 percent.

Enrollment increased at all grade levels in the school system except for 12th grade, which enrolled 158 students, down from 175 in May.

System enrollment projections for 2011-12 compared to actual first week enrollments were:

  • Decatur High School, projected-813; actual-820.
  • Renfroe Middle School, projected -661; actual-682
  • Fifth Avenue (4th &5th grades), projected-449; actual-495
  • K-3rd grade, projected-1,150; actual-1,236.

Pre-kindergarten classes don’t start until Aug. 30, Van Soelen noted.

Renfroe’s enrollment boom was noted by board member Bernadette Seals, who noted that many parents used to take their children out of the city’s public schools rather than send them to the middle school.

“Renfroe is finally coming up to standard, and people are bringing their children” to the school, Seals said. “It’s exciting to see that building close to capacity.”

Individual classes ranged from 18 to 25 students at elementary schools, with one class of 28 at 4/5 Academy at Fifth Avenue, and a class of 32 students at the high school, Van Soelen said, noting that Georgia state regulations do not limit class size.

Board member John Ahmann asked the system to produce a class by class count, showing how many students were in each classroom with a teacher. Board member Julie Rhame suggested also noting whether each class had a paraprofessional, which would lower the adult to child ratio. Edwards noted that Oakhurst has employed two certified teachers as kindergarten paraprofessionals.

The system will soon start verifying students' residency, which it does annually. Students who do not reside in the city are not eligible to attend Decatur schools, and Edwards said "we must do this for the sake of our taxpayers."

In board comments, Ahmann had been expected to announce that he would not run for reelection, but he declined to comment during the meeting or afterwards about his political plans. He did say that, as a professional involved in school governance issues, he was very concerned about attracting people to run for school board.

“Getting quality people willing to run for office is tough,” said Ahmann. “I’m pleased to see that there are two folks already out there,” apparently referring to two candidates who have announced their intent to run for his seat.

Garrett Goebel, who currently serves on the Fifth Avenue School Leadership Team and ran unsuccessfully for the board previously, and Peg Bumgardner, who has served on the Leadership team, have announced their intention to run for Ahmann's seat. Both attended Tuesday's meeting, but did not speak publicly.

“I’m glad to see people stepping up,” said Ahmann. “It’s a good problem for the community to have.”

Board Chair Marc Wisniewski reminded the audience that the board's ethics policy on campaigns asks all candidates to "respect the sanctity of the school. Campaigning within the schools and on school property," is inapprorpiate, Wisniewski said.

Earlier versions of this story misspelled the names of Garrett Goebel and Peggy Bumgardner.

Joan MacCullah August 10, 2011 at 10:44 AM
"when she should seek public comment and when she should act on her own" I say the superintendent can do that when she no longer needs the public's tax dollars to run the school. Why is it that the higher enrollment took the superintendent and board members by surprise. Don't we have school board members in the community to interact and know what is happening. Most people in Decatur are aware of the number of tear down permits, new construction, and renovation permits. When is the school board going to run the school system like a business. If a business missed their projections over and over again they would be out of business or some heads would roll. We need business people running the schools. I fear we have an ego running the schools.

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