During the 1984-85 school year, Riverside Elementary School District 96 saw its enrollment bottom out at 816 students. It was the result of a slide in enrollment that started after the 1969-70 school year, which saw the district hit its peak enrollment at 1,571.
But since 1984-85 enrollment in District 96 has steadily climbed. By 1990-91, enrollment hit 903 students, and was up 18 percent by 1998-99, when the district hit 1,100 students.
Five years later, in the 2003-04 school year enrollment jumped another 11 percent to 1,235. By next year, district officials expect student enrollment to top 1,300 for the first time in over 20 years, and national birthrate models project modest growth in subsequent years.
With changes in educational philosophy, technology, provisions for special education and other support programs, the buildings that served over 1,500 students back in the 1960s are unlikely to accommodate that number comfortably in the 21st century.
“You can’t necessarily fit the 2005 model into a 1970 space,” said District 96 Superintendent Dr. David Bonnette.
Despite the growing student population, Bonnette said he doesn’t see a short-term emergency with respect to classroom space. But the issue is surfacing as the board begins its foray into a new strategic plan. Some 35 people, including board members, staff, community members, Bonnette and future superintendent Dr. Jonathan Lamberson kicked off that process with a meeting March 21 at The Lodge in Oakbrook.
“We’re going to be OK for the immediate future,” Bonnette said. “But [enrollment] is one of the things that will come out in this planning exercise, and we have to take that into consideration. We’re anticipating that, and have enough lead time to deal with it.”
Bonnette suggested that one option open to the district is hiring an outside consultant to perform a study on projected enrollment growth over the next decade.
“I would not be able to, on my own, tell you if the history of the 1980s will repeat itself looking down the road the next 10 to 15 years,” Bonnette said. “That’s another reason to look out to someone who has expertise in this field. That’s a question the board and district need to answer.”
One way Bonnette has tracked enrollment is by looking at kindergarten registration over the years since 1992-93, when he signed on as superintendent. And the numbers show that kindergarten registration in District 96 is also at its highest point since at least the early 1990s.
Last month, 139 students registered for kindergarten in the district, and Bonnette has estimated that the district will pick up another 20 children by September.
The next highest number of kindergarten registrations was for the 2004-05 school year. When school opened last fall there were 142 kindergartners in District 96 classrooms. That’s a 32-percent increase over the 97 total kindergarten students registered in 1994-95.
While increasing enrollment may not be of immediate concern, the board is expected to look at it closely since it will affect not only physical space within schools, but more students means more staff, which means more money expended.
In Riverside’s schools, the space pinch is already being felt. At Hauser Junior High, Principal Joel Benton described the enrollment trend as a “challenge.”
“We’re almost at full capacity,” Benton said. “From a principal’s standpoint, we have to be creative and efficient with our use of space.”
Part of the space crunch at Hauser can be traced back to days when enrollment was not such an issue. When Benton started as principal at Hauser nine years ago, the school had 310 students. Now there are 450. When enrollment numbers were smaller several years ago, the school’s library was expanded, eliminating two classrooms in the process.
“It’s only two fewer classrooms, but that’s big when we face enrollment crunches,” Benton said.
At Ames School, one of the larger classrooms will have a moveable wall installed over the summer to subdivide the space and create another room.
Central School in Riverside, the squeeze is already tight. Most grades have three sections, and one has four.
“We’re maxed out,” said Principal Dariel McGrath.
If enrollment increases continue, McGrath said that the areas that will be hit hardest will be special services, such as ESL and gifted programs or classes such as art and music which might have to surrender classroom space.
“At that point we might have to consider expansion,” McGrath said. “I think we have a few more years until that happens, but we have to consider that for the future. We’ll have to think out of the box for that.”