Nation's public schools bulge with students

August 27, 2006|By New York Times News Service

STERLING, Va. -- About 55 million youngsters are enrolling for classes in the nation's schools this fall, making this the largest group of students in America's history and, in ethnic terms, the most dazzlingly diverse since waves of European immigrants washed through the public schools a century ago.

Millions of baby boomers and foreign-born parents are enrolling their children, sending a demographic bulge through the schools that is driving a surge in classroom construction. It is also causing thousands of districts to hire additional qualified teachers at a time when the Bush administration is trying to increase teacher qualifications across the board. Many school systems have begun recruiting overseas for instructors in hard-to-staff subjects like special education and advanced math.

The rising enrollments are most obvious in districts like this one west of Washington, in Loudoun County, one of the nation's fastest-growing school systems. Thousands of government, technology and construction workers, many of them Hispanic, Asian and black, are streaming into new subdivisions within commuting distance of the Pentagon and the headquarters of AOL. They are transforming a school system that was once small and overwhelmingly white into one that is sprawling and increasingly cosmopolitan.

Thuy Nguyen, a 16-year-old junior at Park View High School in Sterling, has watched the recent transformation. She moved with her family to Virginia from Vietnam when she was 9 years old and recalls that most of her fifth-grade classmates were white.

"I was new, afraid, and I didn't speak very well English," Nguyen said. "I didn't talk to anybody." Six years later, she says, making friends is easier.

"What I like about a diverse school is that you don't feel intimidated if there are other races," she said. "I'm jumping around, talking to the Caucasian clique and the Middle Eastern clique. I have friends from El Salvador, Mexico, Peru - one girl is half Korean and half Puerto Rican, she's cool - and from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan.

"There's a girl from Bangladesh; we tell each other everything. I also knew a Swedish guy. He happened to be very hot. So I talk to all the different groups. I don't want it to be, like, `You're just in the Asian clique.'"

The Loudoun County Public Schools, where annual pay for starting teachers is $40,986, has hired almost all the 650 new teachers it needs to fill its classrooms when school begins Sept. 5, scores of them through agencies that recruit teachers in foreign countries, the superintendent, Edgar B. Hatrick, said.

But some rapidly growing districts across the nation are having trouble. The Clark County School District in Las Vegas, for instance, where teachers' starting salary is $33,000, has hired 2,000 teachers. But with classes scheduled to start Wednesday, the district was still looking for 400 others, mostly to teach special education and math, said Pat Nelson, a spokeswoman.

The Plainfield Community Consolidated School District west of Chicago, which has grown to 26,000 students from 8,700 in 1998, had hired 300 new teachers this year, said John Harper, the superintendent. But in one 36-hour period just days before the fall term resumed this past Wednesday, 500 new students enrolled for classes, Harper said, forcing the district to rearrange student schedules and hire more teachers.

In projections published last year, the U.S. Department of Education said that the nation's elementary and secondary enrollments would grow, on average, by about 200,000 students annually, reaching 56.7 million in 2014. The enrollment trends would be uneven, regionally, with schools in the Northeast and Midwest losing students, on average, and those in the South and West growing, the department said.

The projections showed New York state's public school enrollment dropping 6 percent from 2002 to 2014, Connecticut's enrollment falling by 1 percent in the same period and New Jersey's rising by 3.5 percent.

The department outlined the most spectacular growth for Nevada, where 2002 enrollment was projected to rise 28 percent by 2014, and for Texas, where it was charted to increase 16 percent in the same period.

The Frisco Independent School District, north of Dallas, has seen spectacular growth. In 1998, the system had eight schools with 4,500 students. When classes began Aug. 15, the district had 23,200 students in 34 schools. `'Our challenge has been to build schools fast enough," said Rick Reedy, the superintendent.

The first years of the 21st century have seen tremendous new classroom construction in many regions, with school districts spending $20 billion annually on capital projects, said Paul Abramson, who published a nationwide survey of school construction this year.

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