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Alexandria public school enrollment stagnation puts scrutiny on capacity-boosting projects

Students return to George Washington Middle School (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

A new report indicated Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) enrollment could stagnate over the next few years.

In a meeting of the City Council and the School Board yesterday, it was clear that stagnation is causing some in city leadership to look skeptically at some of the school district’s ambitious capacity-increasing programs planned over the next few years — the modernization of George Mason Elementary School in particular getting name-dropped.

In a joint presentation, the City’s Director of Planning Karl Moritz and ACPS’ Executive Director of Facilities Erika Gulick said that baseline enrollment — that’s enrollment without new development factored in — shows ACPS population peaking around FY 2025 with 15,668 students.

Baseline enrollment projections (image via ACPS)

“[One] of the major [factors] we haven’t seen bounce back from Covid is birth rate,” said Gulick. “That continues to decline over time. With lower numbers of babies, we’re anticipating lower numbers of kindergarten enrollment.”

Gulick said the decline in birth rate has stuck around long enough that it’s no longer an anomaly: it’s a trend.

Even so, Gulick noted that the numbers that factor in children expected to come into Alexandria with new development projects show some continued student enrollment increases.

“Based on that projection, we’re losing close to a thousand kids over the next ten years,” Gulick said. “We don’t actually think that’s going to happen given the amount of affordable housing development that the city is focused on, because we do tend to have a lot more students that live in affordable units… I don’t want people thinking ACPS is losing a thousand students; we generally think we’ve hit our peak and we’re going to plateau.”

Once new development is factored in, that projected stagnation isn’t as intense and peaks in 2029 at 16,404 students. Even so, those projections show as many years where enrollment declines as there are years where it increases.

Enrollment projections with development (image via ACPS)

Mayor Justin Wilson noted that the plateauing of student enrollment in ACPS could have a significant impact on what capacity projects move forward.

“This is really interesting information,” Wilson said. “[It’s] a little bit of narrative busting here in a lot of ways. Like you said, it is a projection and we have to be careful not to read too much into it, but we’re looking at a projection that shows with the impacts of development we get back to pre-pandemic levels within a decade. That’s a pretty provocative projection. And without them: a significant enrollment decline.”

Wilson said in elementary schools the drop is particularly significant.

“If you look at baseline projections, not with development, we’re looking at elementary going from 8,000 to bottoming out in 2030 at less than 7,500.,” Wilson said. “That’s without development.”

Wilson said the drop in enrollment seems at odds with some of ACPS’ modernization plans.

“Our next priority is George Mason, which is seeing the largest drop,” Wilson said, and noted that George Mason has little by way of major developments planned nearby. “That means that most of those kids are coming out of a school like that… I’m not saying not to do Mason, but I want to make sure we’re looking at the big picture.”

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