Enrollment down but above predictions in Lee, early enrollment figures show

— Early indicators of school enrollment next year in Lee County are down, but just barely above predictions for decreases, officials say.

The first round of student assignment — known as “batch one” — at Lee County Public Schools ended one week ago, and the numbers of applications for new elementary and middle school students are down from last year, while rising ninth-graders appear to be more numerous in the county.

“For the first time in recorded data history, we had elementary school enrollment go down where anywhere else it has gone up in the past,” said school district spokesman Joe Donzelli. “We’re in uncharted territory, as goofy as that sounds. It’s pretty close to what we had projected what our batch one would look like.”

For all grades kindergarten through 12th, 14,976 applications were received; that is a decrease of 320 from last year. Only students entering kindergarten, sixth grade or ninth grade or new students to the district are required to submit applications for school enrollment.

Michael Smith, the district’s director of planning, growth and school capacity, said the numbers were actually a slight increase from his predictions. Enrollment has declined steadily throughout the current school year, but the flow of students away from Lee County Public Schools might slow a bit toward the fall, he said. District-wide enrollment rests at about 78,000 students.

The district conducts a “mini-census” every 20 days in the county to determine current enrollment, Smith said. The figures are included in cycle reports for the district.

“Reports for high school students have never been higher for any other cycle in the district,” said Smith. “It’s still higher for middle school than we were the year before. There’s a lot of mobility in this district — both coming and going.”

To some extent, the old rules just do not apply anymore when it comes to predicting growth or enrollment declines, Donzelli said.

But Smith has a theory about the increase in ninth-grade enrollment; he said it may have something to do with the unwillingness of families with older students to pick up roots and force their children to acclimate to new schools — no matter how difficult the economic circumstances.

“I’m of the opinion that the parents of the youngest of our population were the most mobile and were possibly some of the earliest to leave the area to find employment,” Smith said. “The families of the older students are pretty much entrenched here. Hopefully, they’re working, they’re established, and there are slightly more high schoolers out there than there were last year.”

Lee County’s school choice model is operated like a lottery. Those students and parents who submitted applications before the March 13 deadline will learn after March 25 whether they got their first picks. In past first-batch processes, roughly nine out of every 10 students got their first choices.

After applications are drawn March 25, letters of notification will start going out to parents who filled out paper applications. Parents who applied online — there were about 5,000, up from 4,000 last year — can find out more quickly by visiting the school assignment page at www.leeschools.net.

Student assignment applications for Lee County schools next year:

■ Kindergarten: 3,720 received this year; 3,885 in 2008

■ Sixth grade: 4,477 received this year; 4,702 in 2008

■ Ninth grade: 5,114 received this year; 4,823 in 2008

■ Total K-12: 14,976 received this year; 15,296 in 2008 (These numbers will not be an exact composite of the kindergarten, sixth- and ninth-grade numbers because the totals also reflect new Lee County students enrolling in other grades.)

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