After years of decline, California student enrollment is rising again, especially in the Valley, according to projections by the California Department of Finance.
Fresno County's K-12 student population is expected to grow by 1,309 students to 194,884 by the end of this school year, placing it just behind Placer County, which is expected to add 1,647 students. In third place is Tulare County, which is expected to grow by 1,110 students by the end of the school year.
State analysts, who looked at growth over the next 10 years, said birth rates and migration account for growth in parts of the state.
The state's inland areas, where real estate is still considered a bargain by California standards, are attracting families, resulting in some of the biggest increases in enrollments.
"The Valley is a target area because of land prices," said Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell.
But not all districts are growing. While many rural and suburban schools are seeing increased enrollments, Fresno Unified hasn't seen attendance rise and may not for several more years.
Some local districts say they are prepared for growing enrollments and already have plans to build schools, which would require additional bond measures to finance. But small districts, with fewer financial resources, say it might be difficult to accommodate the influx of students.
"In light of the economy, [and] state budget cuts, it's an interesting time, to say the least," said Mary Villarreal, president of the board of trustees for Dinuba Unified School District. The district, which has about 6,000 students, recently tabled plans for a new K-8 school as it grapples with state budget cuts.
The projections are critical for districts as they plan school construction and hiring. And the number of projected students gives districts an idea of potential funding linked to student attendance. However, school officials say the numbers are just estimates and that it's difficult to predict what will happen in today's ever-changing economy.
A decline in the state birth rate that began around 1990 and continued for about 10 years was to blame for the statewide drop. But births have been rising again, said Mary Heim, chief of the finance department's demographic research unit.
Over the next decade, Fresno County is expected to add 27,532 students -- the fourth-highest number in the state, just behind Riverside (167,442 students), San Bernardino (44,945) and Kern (43,907) counties. Statewide enrollment is projected to increase by about 200,000 students.
By comparison, enrollment in Los Angeles County schools is expected to decline over the next 10 years from 1.6 million to 1.4 million as families move to neighboring counties. The state expects enrollment to drop in 30 of the state's 58 counties this year and 11 counties will see a drop over the next 10 years.
In Fresno County, Heim said, the enrollment growth is predicted for outlying areas, not in Fresno Unified School District -- the county's largest.
In 2003-04, the district had more than 81,000 students. Today, it has slightly more than 73,000.
District officials say the number of students leaving Fresno Unified slowed between 2008-09 and this school year, and they expect enrollment to level off and then pick up in a few more years.
Fresno Unified lost students in recent years as families migrated out of the area because of job losses and foreclosures, and the district also faced increased competition from charter schools. Officials say the district has done a better job competing with charter schools by developing more specialty programs and magnet schools.
Central Unified, Clovis Unified and Sanger Unified are among the fastest-growing in the county, Powell said. West Fresno Elementary School District and Washington Union High School District are also seeing growth as families move into smaller communities where housing is more affordable.
Central Unified School District has grown significantly in recent years. The district -- which covers northwest and parts of southwest Fresno, mostly west of Highway 99 -- had just 10,290 students in 2000-01. Last school year it had 14,266 and today it has about 14,500.
"We're growing exponentially," said Central's Superintendent Michael Berg, who expects an additional 300 students next year.
Berg said the economy has driven people into Central's boundaries, where housing is less expensive than other parts of the city. He said there has also been an influx of families sharing homes in the area for economic reasons, which results in more kids per household. And with plans for new home construction, there will be even more students attending Central's schools.
All of this has the school district planning ahead. A $152 million school bond measure approved by voters in 2008 is helping to fund new schools, including a new middle school now under construction and a planned high school. The district opened Harvest Elementary School two years ago and plans to build at least two more elementary schools "when necessary," said Berg. The district has already purchased land for its future elementary schools.
In Sanger, a burgeoning community east of Fresno, student enrollment growth has been steady. Sanger Unified School District has about 10,500 students today -- up from about 7,800 in 2000-01. Three of the district's schools are at enrollment capacity.
To keep up with the growth, the district will begin construction this month on a new elementary school on 12 acres of what was a 20-acre orange grove. The school is expected to open for the 2011-12 school year.
Sanger's growth is happening for a couple of reasons, said Marcus Johnson, Sanger Unified's superintendent. Some families are moving to Sanger from Southern California because they have lost jobs or homes and have come to live with relatives here. In addition, Sanger's schools are becoming a draw because of high test scores. Twelve of the district's 13 elementary schools have scores above 800 (out of a target 1,000) on the state's Academic Performance Index -- a measure of student achievement based on state standardized testing.
By contrast, Fresno Unified school test scores rank among the lowest in the state.
In Tulare County, growth is occurring in both small and larger districts, said Robert Herman, spokesman for the county schools office. This includes Visalia Unified School District, with more than 27,000 students, and Dinuba Unified, which has added more than 800 students since 2000.
Kings County, which has many small districts in rural areas, is expected to grow from 28,354 students to 34,862 over the next decade.
School officials say the state data are informative, but the numbers remain just a best-guess. Economic conditions will be the major contributing factor to where people will live and their children attend school.
"It's a good thing to get an idea of what might be happening," Powell said. "It's an unusual time."