Thursday, September 26, 2002

Cape’s enrollment going up despite prediction

Published in the Current

When they started planning for an expansion and renovation to the high school, Cape Elizabeth school officials wanted to know what school enrollments would look like 10 years out.

In October 2000, South Portland-based Planning Decisions issued a draft report to the schools indicating that the district’s student body would decline slightly overall from 2001 to 2011. That decline is not happening yet, according to school enrollment numbers. Instead, student numbers are climbing slightly, to a point where, two years from the date the study was conducted, there are 64 more students than predicted.

Rebecca Wandell, a project analyst at Planning Decisions, said the study was based on historical trends in Cape Elizabeth and did not take into account variations in those trends, or new construction beyond previous annual averages.

The study included two sets of estimates, one called “best fit,” which was based solely on historical data, and one set called “high,” assuming 30 new single family homes would be built each year, and that those new homes would result in 12 new students each year.

The “best fit” model projected that there would be 1,734 students in the school system in 2001-2002, dropping to 1,717 students for 2002-2003. The “high” model predicted 1,757 in 2001-2002 and 1,752 in 2002-2003. Both indicated slowly declining school populations through 2010-2011.

The actual data shows there were 1,759 students in 2001-2002, rising to 1,781 this school year, 64 students more than the “best fit” projected and 29 more than the “high” model.

“We are either at the high end in most cases, or in some cases exceeding the high end” of the projections, said Superintendent Tom Forcella.

That difference has meant there is no reliable enrollment model for school officials to use when planning new facilities and deciding how much room to set aside for uses as wide-ranging as cafeteria tables and parking, much less classroom space.

The projected downward trend in student numbers has not begun and is not even on the horizon yet, Forcella said. The best he can do is use the “high” model numbers and make guesses beyond that.

He is not sure why the differences have occurred, but has a theory. It has long been the case in Cape that some students will attend private all-day kindergartens rather than the half-day kindergarten offered by the schools.

The estimates have projected that those students will enroll in the town’s first grade. Forcella said this is not necessarily happening.

Instead, some of the private kindergartens have added first-grade classes. Parents choose to keep their kids in the private school for a year, before enrolling them in the town schools as they enter second grade.

The estimates do not take that delayed enrollment into account.

Forcella said it has happened in the past couple of years, resulting in a larger-than-expected second grade class.

Actual enrollment numbers depart from the projections from elementary through middle school, though they get closer together in high school.

“We don’t really know why,” Forcella said.

Wandell has some ideas. She admits Forcella could be right. She also said some of the study’s assumptions could be wrong: More new homes might have been built than were included in the model, and more children might be in each home than the model assumed.

In 2001, there were 34 new single family homes built, followed by 31 new homes so far in 2002, more homes than the model assumed.

As for children in the home, the birth rate is stable in Cape, Wandell said, though it was slightly higher in 2001, with 82 babies born to parents in the town. She said that would tend to indicate more families are moving in.

But she defended the accuracy of the survey, which differs from the actual numbers by less than 3 percent in most of the figures. “Statistically, we’re not off by a significant amount,” Wandell said.

She admitted that looking at the numbers from a standpoint of statistical validity is different from trying to use the numbers to predict class size and make projections for numbers of classrooms and teachers in the future.

Going forward, she said, the schools could update the study or begin to build their own estimates by surveying buyers of homes in town about the number of children they have and their ages.