Obtaining an accurate accounting of the number of students in a school system early in the academic year is important. It provides information that is vital to administrators who often struggle to match sometimes limited resources to the needs and demands of schools and students within the system.
Sometimes, though, events can make it difficult to get an accurate count of students. That appears to be the case year in Hamilton County. Superintendent Rick Smith, for one, doesn't think the 20th day census taken last Wednesday offers a precise portrait of enrollment. He's probably correct.
By Wednesday's count, there are now 42,236 students in the system - 20,840 elementary students, 9,467 middle school students and 11,929 high school students. That's an increase of 209 elementary and 267 middle school students and a decline of 190 high school students as compared to the 20th day of school in 2010. Smith believes the overall count is too low.
He's got sound reasons for that belief. The tally was taken two days after record rains in the area, a day after schools were closed because of weather-related problems and on a day when the start of school was delayed. Moreover, many county residents were without power Wednesday and it is quite likely that some parents were unable to get their kids to school. Still, the 20-day numbers provide useful information about a system in transition.
The numbers confirm what Smith and system administrators predicted before the school term. They said the system would add about 500 students. Though Wednesday's numbers don't quite match that prediction, it is possible, if not likely, that another count taken in more normal circumstances would confirm growth in that range. The 20th day totals also confirm some predicted demographic trends that will continue to test the system's ability to match student populations to space available at some schools.
The census, for example, indicates rapid growth in some schools and continued decline in enrollment at others. The still-new Signal Mountain Middle/High has 108 more high school and 50 more middle school students than last year. East Hamilton Middle/High School, also new, is already full, with 918 middle school and 1,116 high school students. Brainerd, Soddy-Daisy, Tyner Academy, Red Bank and East Ridge, all older schools, reported declines in enrollment.
Some of the student population shift revealed in the count is the result of normal growth patterns in the community. Part of it, though, is the consequence of continuing reports of substandard academic achievement at certain schools and residual inner-city/suburban fallout from the merger of city and county schools more than a decade ago. The latter suggests that Hamilton County schools have some problems that continue to defy easy resolution.
Some of the issues related to growing student population, however, can be addressed quickly. Teachers already have been moved from one school to another and additional professional and administrative staff hired. Class schedules have been tweaked and transportation issues resolved. That's the easy part.
The more difficult tasks presented by a growing school system with a history of problems remain. Addressing the persistent academic shortfalls, shifting and balancing school attendance zones, providing new buildings and other infrastructure and securing funding free of political interference require careful policy-making and long-range planning. That work must continue - whether the system grows by the 286 students recorded last week, by the 500 expected before the current school year started or by additional growth in coming years.