Why Enrollment Projections Go Wrong


Whenever a new school year starts, nerves are sure to fray as more children show up than expected. Teachers are reassigned to different schools, and personnel coordinators place calls to hire more people. Board members call the superintendent complaining about empty seats here and portable classrooms over there at the new elementary that was supposed to solve growth issues. Reporters are snooping about for whom to blame.

Despite what seems like a recurring case of unpredictability, it is possible to fix the problem of poor enrollment projections that can become budget busters. Here are some reasons that problems arise, along with suggestions from experience working with school districts on long-range planning:

Kelley CareyKelley D. Carey

Rolling over the attendance file.
The associate superintendent hands the data clerk the list of kids attending at the end of last year, who moves them up a grade at each school. The administrator is very busy, and believes this ought to be something the clerical staff can handle. The clerk has no concept of "cohort survival."

Where enrollments are declining, rolling over the numbers at each school disregards five-year historical trends of growth or decline by grade due to local demographic cycles. The result often leads to overprojection for the next year, and too many teachers are hired, which diverts funds from other pressing needs. Or, in cases of increasing birthrates reversing past declines or increasing cohort survivals due to in-migration, a rush results to find credentialed teachers and pay for them. Either way, the costs are serious.

•  Equating enrollments to attendance-zone demographics for projections. Many districts are rife with transfers among zones that badly distort trends from year to year. We see records of student addresses so poorly kept that no one could use them to map students. Poor record keeping makes it very difficult to project enrollments or identify students attending out of zone.

•  Failing to plan for the triangle of programs, demographics and facilities. We see major construction programs based upon a one-page listing of total district enrollments for the last five years -- without regard to the growth and decline around a district. Construction programs costing $100 million dollars sometimes are based upon such scant data. Often, such reports are presented by the maintenance director, who knows little about enrollment demographics but does know the board members who want that new high school or will not vote to rezone certain schools. 

•  Ignoring computer mapping of students is ignored. The school district uses the latest software for bus routing, accounting and registration. But enrollment projections are done with a hand calculator, despite the simple off-the-shelf programs to map kids and zones for use in projecting enrollments. The staff person mapping bus routes handles demographics and zone mapping, not coordinating these student counts with staff planning facilities or hiring personnel.

Because a county planning department maps streets and lots for tax assessment and planning, the same department could easily map the students through intergovernmental coordination, but we do not see that happen often. Turf protection and fear of control being usurped are impediments. Joint use of mapping expertise would go far, especially in small school districts. 

•  Lacking effective demographics and facilities planning education. Graduate programs teach a bit about cohort survival of children moving to the next grade. That is just part of student-demographics planning. A facilities planning course deals with planning a building. But that is the last step, taken after documenting evidence that another school is even needed and where it should go, compared to all the other options of redistricting, adding classrooms here and there or a combinations of measures. 

•  Not having a data-driven, five-year plan for housing programs and (yet) assigning children to schools based on five-year projections. Planning reports often consist of eyewash pictures of schools, kids and road maps followed by an intensive list of projects and costs with a page of the poor projections noted above. Even 20-year projections may be shown to justify proposals. Such projections are worthless, as too many economic and demographic contingencies are involved. Enrollment curves always seem to go up, especially when created by consultants who would like to design more schools. The consultants are long gone when you are still paying off the bonds for projects perhaps not needed.

Two Suggestions
First, fledgling school district leaders need better university training in comprehensive school district planning, not just emphasis upon the latest gimmicks in school building design. Budding superintendents need to understand the relationships among programs, demographics and facilities and the proven methods for projecting enrollments and using all data well in planning. This work should not be farmed out to consultants for one-shot plans that are not kept current.

How critical is good student-demographics planning to a superintendent? In my 30 years of planning work, I have seen many more superintendents lose their positions over building and redistricting issues than from any debate over instructional programs.

Second, school districts should adopt a rolling five-year strategy to bring together programs, demographics and facilities. It begins with computer mapping of school zones and students every year, integrated with a proven five-year enrollment projection program by grade and school. Those data are coupled with documented surveys of building renovation needs and capacities and alternatives for redistricting and construction in a process that includes public involvement.

If the district has no organized five-year planning for the triangle of programs, demographics and facilities, be assured staff in different departments are planning for their own priorities. To ignore this need means repeating the same process while expecting a different outcome.

Kelley Carey is a schools planning consultant on Hilton Head Island, S.C. E-mail: