Iowa public school enrollment up sharply, but Cedar Rapids sees steep decline
About half of state's 348 districts reported enrollment increase
UPDATE: A new public school enrollment report from the Iowa Department of Education shows a rising tide does not lift all boats.
Iowa’s kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment had its first significant year-to-year jump since 1996 – adding 2,741 students, a .6 percent increase, for a total of 476,245 learners – but 167 of the state’s 351 school districts lost students between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. The Cedar Rapids Community School District shed 127 students in that time, second only to the Davenport Community School District’s 191-student decrease.
“This statewide increase is refreshing news for Iowa after years of declining enrollment,” said Jay Pennington, chief of the Iowa Department of Education’s Bureau of Information and Analysis, in a statement earlier today. “However, the reality is that this increase most likely is temporary.”
The picture is less rosy from a five-year perspective, with Iowa showing an overall loss of 774 students, a .16 percent decrease, since the 2008-09 school year. In that time, the Cedar Rapids district’s enrollment shrunk by 851 learners, the largest drop in the state and almost three times the size of the time frame’s second biggest decline, 286 students in the Clinton Community School District.
“The district had been going along losing about 100 to 120 students a year, a very modest decline historically,” said Dave Benson, superintendent of the Cedar Rapids district. “The  flood hit, and over a two year period we lost over 500 students, attributed to the loss of housing in the community due to the flood. That accelerated that loss.”
Benson urged people to keep the enrollment decline in perspective, because while the district has tallied a 4.9 percent loss in the last five years, that number is “negligible” in comparison to other Iowa school systems. In fact, the Stratford Community School District showed the biggest percentage drop over the last five years, hemorrhaging a full quarter of its 213 student enrollment – five times the Cedar Rapids district’s percentage drop. Stratford's actual student decrease only amounted to 53.
“We can attribute a large part of that loss to a single historical event, and I feel that puts that loss into a little bit of perspective,” Benson said.
The news is much better for the Iowa City Community School District, which gained the fourth largest amount of students in the state from 2011-12 to 2012-13, 321 additional learners, as well as over the last five years, counting 1,025 more students since 2008-09. School district officials are gearing up for a Revenue Purpose Statement vote on Tuesday, Feb. 5, where local voters will have the power to authorize early access to $100 million in sales tax funds. If approved, administrators have indicated they will spend that money on construction projects to address the district’s expanding student population.
State officials say this year marks the first significant enrollment increase for Iowa’s 348 school districts in 17 years, although overall enrollment has declined over the past five years. Enrollment peaked in the 1972-73 school year with 645,000 students attending Iowa public schools.
The statewide enrollment increase is due in part to an upsurge in birth rates from 2003 to 2008, according to state Department of Education officials. Birth rates spiked in 2007 but have decreased in recent years.
Waukee, Des Moines and Ankeny reported the largest one-year enrollment number increases, while West Sioux, Moulton-Udell and Waukee reported the largest one-year percentage increases.
In the past five years, public school enrollment statewide has declined from 477,019 students in 2008-09 to 476,245 in 2012-13. Of Iowa’s 348 school districts, 233 (67 percent) reported an enrollment decrease during that five-year period, while 115 districts (33 percent) reported an increase, according to DOE data.
Reporter Rod Boshart contributed to this story.