Top 10 stories of 2012: No. 3 — Public schools enrollment shock

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Enrollment in Darien’s public schools was unexpectedly high this year, the highest since 1976, and some grades could reach maximum capacity bythe next school year, the district reported.

This set off alarms for many people who worried about how many suitable classrooms would be available — including those currently used at Tokeneke and Hindley for the pre-school Early Learning Program.

At the end of 2011, the district expected 4,819 students for the 2012-2013 school year. Enrollment had dropped significantly and for the first time since the early nineties at that point. The town has seen births decreasing since around the year 2000.

The actual total enrollment by October 2012 was 4846 pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. The elementary schools had the greatest increases in enrollment — 45 students in total.

In September, there were reports of shrinking classroom and office space at the schools, including one that some teachers were using closets as office space, or doubling up.

The year’s unexpected enrollment is troublesome in the context of classroom availability and the number of sections.

Classroom sizes are determined by the district and unchangeable, said Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Board of Ed chairman, at a meeting. The schools are also required to have preschool and kindergarten and first grade classes on the first floor of the building.

To remedy the situation early in the year, the district increased sections from 105 to 110 plus six ELP sections at the elementary schools. By August, the district had hired five more teachers, which was 2.5 over the budget.

There are 64 children enrolled in ELP this year, 22 at Hindley and 42 at Tokeneke, accommodated by two and four sections, respectively.

The pre-school program was established in 2006 and has grown significantly though the school buildings were not built to hold those extra classes. The program provides revenue for the school as well as services for preschool children with developmental disabilities.

Next year, there could be 100 elementary school sections or up to 114 sections if enrollment goes over the absorption rate, said Dr. Stephen Falcone, superintendent of schools. This does not include ELP.

By the 2014-15 school year, ELP could be spaced out of its current space to accommodate 117 projected sections.

Hindley has 27 classrooms available in the current building — 12 on the first floor, 14 on the second floor and one portable, Falcone reported. Some classroom spaces were originally designed for other use, such as music or copy rooms.

Hindley might not have any available classroom space by 2013 or 2014, he said, without taking ELP into account.

The numbers will fluctuate to one through three classrooms in 2015 through 2017, according to projections.

In November, excitement was fueled by Falcone’s presentation of each elementary school’s “absorption rate,” which projects the maximum number of students per classrooms before creating a new sections is necessary.

Hindley could accept one unexpected first grader and no kindergarten students with current sections, according to the report. Holmes’ fourth grade and Ox Ridge’s fifth grade also had a absorption rate of zero.

“We value our ability to use space flexibly,” Falcone told the board. “We draw upon people’s good will. We sometimes use the spaces for which they were not originally designed.

“We have projected 38 additional students from the recently expanded Heights project, beginning next school year: seven at the High school, seven at the Middle school and 24 at Royle Elementary.”

In the State of the Town address in December, Hagerty-Ross said the district projects 38 students from the expanded housing at the Heights as early as next year — 24 at Royle school, seven at Darien high school, and seven at Middlesex.

The district presented an array of short and long term solutions, though some residents still question whether the increase is part of a cycle that will fall in the coming years.

Eighty new students from Kensett, or the former Procaccini project, would be a “conservative estimate,” Hagerty-Ross said. This estimate shows 40 students at Ox Ridge school.

At a Board of Ed meeting, Mike Lynch, facilities director, discussed the possibilities including new construction on either district property or town property, renovation to existing property, leasing commercial property, and redistricting students.

Falcone expressed that spreading the ELP program out across multiple buildings is not a “favorable” option.

“It’s a robust program [and] serves kids well but we need space,” he said, “We don’t want to encroach on 35 Leroy but it’s a space.”

“We cant compromise ELP or other school programs,” he said, “We’ve used space very flexibly.”

The Board of Education formed a committee charged with exploring available space for instruction.

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