BY THE NUMBERS
Early head counts this fall shows enrollment growth in seven of 11 Southeast Tennessee school systems and declines in four. Systems in bold had the greatest enrollment gain. Officials say head counts at 20 days will be more accurate.
System Enrollment 2011/12 Enrollment 2010/11 Change
Bledsoe 1,869 1,874 -0.27%
Bradley 10,161 10,212 -0.5%
Cleveland 5,131 5,009 +2.4 %
Grundy 2,393 2,270 +5.4%
Hamilton 42,009 41,584 +1.02%
Marion 4,423 4,325 +2.27%
McMinn 5,872 5,782 +1.55%
Meigs 1,840 1,818 +1.21%
Polk 2,634 2,661 -1.01%
Rhea 4,469 4,240 +5.4%
Sequatchie 2,281 2,295 -0.6%
Combined total 83,082 82,070 +1.23%
Source: Local public school systems
Enrollment numbers across Southeast Tennessee reveal mixed results the first week or so into the school year. Most Southeast Tennessee school systems' enrollment grew between 1 and 3 percent, four slipped backward a little while two systems had increases of more than 5 percent, figures show.
Overall, system enrollment in Southeast Tennessee schools grew by a little more than 1,000 students, or about 1.2 percent, figures show. Individually, Rhea County and Grundy County led the region in enrollment growth.
Already-crowded Rhea County Schools had a 5.4 percent jump in enrollment reflected by a systemwide increase of 229 students, according to Elementary Supervisor Ray Fugate.
The increase puts the county about 500 students over the system's capacity, Fugate said.
"Our two big issues are Rhea Central [Elementary] and Rhea County High School," he said. "Those are numbers we have been battling for several years now."
Rhea Central was packed with 1,378 students on Tuesday, up by 51 from last year. The school was designed for 900, Fugate said. Rhea County High School, designed for 1,200 students, had 1,416 on Tuesday, he said.
Frazier Elementary is brimming, too, where four portable buildings have been installed, he said.
Those conditions inhibit learning, he said.
"In the next couple of years, we're going to be at the highest numbers we've ever had," Fugate said. "We're trying to put a case out there that we need a new high school. The same is true at Rhea Central.
"It's not something that we'd like to have, it's something that we have to have," he said.
Grundy County Director of Schools Jody Hargis is at a loss to explain the rural county's 5.4 percent enrollment growth, though the increase could be something of a rebound. The 2010 U.S. census shows the county lost population over the last decade.
"When I first came into this office four or five years ago, we were close to the number we are at now," Hargis said. "Then we dropped back."
Hargis said he can't pinpoint a reason.
"We haven't had any kind of new industry or anything to bring people in," he said. "We're looking at 130-student increase."
Coalmont Elementary School in the center of the county is the system's most overcrowded.
"We have 60 to 70 more students than we should have in that school," he said.
Coalmont's persistent growth problem stems from its centralized location near the high school, officials say. Hargis said many parents who have young children and high-schoolers like Coalmont because it's convenient to the high school, just two miles away.
Elsewhere across the region, early tallies in Bledsoe, Polk and Sequatchie show declines ranging from 0.27 percent in Bledsoe to a little more than 1 percent in Polk, officials said.
The poor economy is the likely culprit in Polk County Schools' enrollment decline over the last couple of years, said Laura Barnett, supervisor of technology attendance.
At a 1 percent drop, Polk leads the other three counties that showed declines in early enrollment counts.
"It could be people just moving on looking for jobs," she said. "Three of our schools have increased by a little bit, but three others had more of a decline."
Head counts should climb as the school year continues toward Labor Day, she said.
"I know we've had quite a few new students and the schools I've talked to have had very few no-shows," she said.
Sequatchie's enrollment dipped by 14 from the same time last year, continuing a two-year decline, officials said.
"The trend is that up until last year we have grown an average of 3 percent a year," said Pete Swafford, Sequatchie County assistant director of schools.
"We were growing, from '99 to 2009 we grew 28.5 percent," he said.
Early head counts in Sequatchie's three-school system show a slip of less than 1 percent. Swafford says the two-year stall is probably a sign of the economic times, also reflected in a similar slowdown in population growth.
Bledsoe County's head counts were down by five students, after a decline of about 20 students last year from the year before, according to Jack Roberson, attendance supervisor.
High fuel prices and the loss of jobs in Bledsoe and the rest of the Sequatchie Valley in the last few years mean parents might have had to move closer to communities in Rhea, Hamilton and Cumberland counties to find work and a cheaper commute, Roberson said.
"If economy gets better, it'll be different," he said.
Enrollment in Bradley County fell about half a percentage point from head counts the same time a year ago though officials expected a larger drop, Director of Schools Johnny McDaniel said. Bradley's enrollment stands at 10,161 students, down from 10,212 last year, according to early counts.
"We had expected our enrollment to be down following the April storms and loss of available housing in the county," McDaniel states in an email.
"We have had some students move to the city and out of state seeking affordable housing," he said. "We anticipate that following a complete recovery from the tornadoes and with new industry locating in the area, we will see enrollment grow."
In the school system's 2035 strategic plan, Bradley officials predict "an explosion of growth in the near future" that reflects other communities that have had similar industrial development, he states.
The city system in Bradley and the other six larger systems in the region had enrollment gains over the past year, figures show.
Larry Payne, Cleveland City Schools secondary supervisor, said the largest city system in the region grew by about 120 students.
Payne said Mayfield Elementary School grew the most this year with 52 additional students on the 10th day.
"Is it easily absorbed? No, but we don't have them in the hallway," he said.
The increase forced "some adjusting," he said. Stewart Elementary School increased by 60 last year over the previous year, but he couldn't say why, or why the jump this year happened at Mayfield.
Otherwise, enrollment growth caused no immediate crowding problems, he said, though steady enrollment growth over the past several years does have Cleveland officials eyeing a new elementary school for the future.
Marion County enrollment was up by 98 students, said Director of Schools Mark Griffith.
"Classrooms are showing it, too," Griffith said this week. "We've got some classrooms that have more than they've ever had."
In future head counts, Griffith said the total increase could exceed 100.
Whitwell Middle School has been growing by about 10 students a year, "or maybe a little more than that," and enrollment at Jasper Middle is up slightly, particularly in the fifth grade, he said.
Even with the growth, the increases are "still manageable," he said.
McMinn County had 1.55 percent enrollment growth, an increase that was expected and is spread evenly across the system, said Bob Mahoney, attendance supervisor.
Mahoney said some of the increase at McMinn County High School stems from ninth-graders being moved there from Athens Middle School.
"Today, it looks like it's 42 more, but that's probably not accurate yet," he said. Systemwide, enrollment is up by about 90 students, he said.
Meigs County's enrollment grew slightly compared with last year's count, with an increase of 22 students over a year ago.
"The majority of that increase has shown up in the high school population," Director of Schools Don Roberts said.
Meigs High's growth came from a group of 147 new ninth-graders from Meigs Middle School, he said.
Roberts said class space hasn't been affected much, but buses are busier than ever thanks to enrollment growth and high fuel costs for parents and students who drive.
"We are transporting more kids on buses than we have ever transported," he said.
Hamilton County Director of Schools Rick Smith on Tuesday said officials were bracing for a 500-student gain this year and estimates were on the mark with an increase of 425 on the 10th day of school this year.
Smith said the increase was split among elementary, middle and high schools.
Hamilton County gained 271 elementary students, 251 middle-schoolers and 97 more high schools students, the high schools head count being a number Smith said is expected to climb in coming days.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...