Data: Iowa's overall growing student enrollment concentrated in urban areas, rural enrollment down

Start of school year means opening day for 'shiny' new buildings

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MARION — Sporting a short blond mohawk, 5-year-old Ira Walton stood outside Longfellow Elementary in Marion on Wednesday morning. Wrapped around his father’s leg, he watched as his principal, superintendent and school board president cut a ceremonial ribbon.

It was both Ira’s very first day of school and the first day of classes for his brand-new elementary school, Longfellow Elementary in the Marion Independent School District.

The school, 2900 Eighth Ave., is one of only seven new public school buildings in Iowa opening its doors to students for the first time this year, according to the Iowa Department of Education.

The first day of school also marked the first day 15 other schools in Iowa did not reopen for the 2017-1018 school year. One of those, Emerson Elementary, at 1400 10th Ave. in Marion, was replaced by Longfellow.

School district enrollment numbers, 2012-22 (2017-22 projected)

Source: Iowa Department of Education. Chart by John McGlothlen / The Gazette

Most staff members from Emerson are now located at the new school, including Principal Nicole Harmer, she said. Families who attended Emerson are also now zoned for Longfellow.

“The energy level is so much higher with everything being new,” said Randy Walton, 36, standing with his son Ira and daughter Nora, 7. “They’re going to do great this year.”

Superintendent Chris Dyer said the “big, bright, shiny” $8.9 million building was built with funds from the state penny tax for school infrastructure.

Across the Marion district, every grade level has more students this year than last, Dyer said, as population growth has exploded in the city just north of Cedar Rapids.

“It’s no secret, Marion has been growing a lot,” Marion Mayor Nick AbouAssaly said during Wednesday’s ceremony. “We’ve been having a lot of ribbon cuttings.”

State data shows the Marion district, which is geographically one of the smallest school districts in Iowa, has grown by about 70 students in the past five years. Its neighbor, Linn-Mar Community School District, has grown by some 430 students in the same time period.

“There’s not a lot of home construction in Marion (Independent School District),” Dyer said, noting much of the new residences are in Linn-Mar’s boundaries. “We just don’t have the space to expand. ... It may look like we’re not expanding, but we have students enroll in” through open enrollment, a state policy that allows students to attend any public school district regardless of their home address.

School district enrollment percentage increases from 2012 to 2022 (2017-22 projected)

Source: Iowa Department of Education. Chart by John McGlothlen / The Gazette

State enrollment projections predict the Marion district will grow by another 115 students in five years. While student enrollment in rural districts is shrinking, such growth is typical for districts near metro areas, said Jay Pennington, the chief of the Iowa Department of Education’s Bureau of Information and Analysis.

“When we look at the projections, as well as history, we do see a pattern,” Pennington said. “Typically we’ve seen enrollment increases around the major metro areas within Iowa, either the county encompassing those cities or an adjacent city.”

The number of school-aged children in the state overall had been on the decline since the early 1990s, Pennington said, until five years ago when the number of students enrolled in Iowa schools started to increase. The most recent count of students was about 485,150, about 8,900 more than during the 2012-2013 school year.

But that growth is in a minority of districts, mostly in metro areas. About 54 percent of school districts are experiencing a decline in enrollment, he said.

“Largely, those are rural areas that are losing significant population, which is shifting over to the metro,” Pennington said.

Official school district enrollment counts for the 2017-2018 school year likely will be published in December, he said.

“We anticipate a continued increase in enrollment over time,” Pennington said. “The increases are sort of starting to level off, but we’re expecting to see when you have the ’17-’18 numbers, probably in December, that we will again have an increase statewide.”

Department data does not include new brick-and-mortar buildings that replace existing schools, department spokeswoman Staci Hupp said, so new schools like Solon Middle School and Hoover Elementary in Iowa City are not represented.

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