Virtual students raise head count

Dramatic increases in enrollment at the Lawrence Virtual School are driving an overall increase in the enrollment of the Lawrence school district.

According to preliminary figures from the district, 10,539 students enrolled in Lawrence public schools this year. That’s up from 10,225 on the same day last year.

The numbers are preliminary and won’t become official until Sept. 20, when the district does its state-mandated head count.

“These kinds of numbers tend to be very rubbery,” superintendent Randy Weseman said. “I think we’ll end up somewhere above our projections and where the numbers were at the beginning of last year.”

Last year’s Sept. 20 enrollment count was 10,303, which was also up from the year before. Lawrence school district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said the enrollment is 16 students above what the district had projected.

Until the virtual school opened in 2004, Lawrence schools had seen four years of declines.

The virtual school enrolled 756 students this year, an increase of more than 200 students at all grade levels.

“Actually, we put a lid on (virtual school enrollment) every year,” Weseman said. “We’ve been somewhat aggressive, but not off the charts in terms of expanding enrollment.”

Weseman said it was fair to assume the district would continue to raise the number of students permitted to enroll in the virtual school into the foreseeable future, based on demand. He did say, though, that the ever increasing number of virtual schools around the state will probably cut into the number of students who choose to enroll in Lawrence.

The Lawrence school enrolls students from across the state.

Another school that saw considerable growth this year was Langston Hughes School, on the west side of town. Langston Hughes is the district’s third-largest brick-and-mortar elementary school and grew by 59 students this year.

Weseman said that he had expected Langston Hughes to grow and would have been troubled if it hadn’t.

“We opened Langston Hughes significantly under capacity with the idea that it would grow into its boundary levels,” Weseman said.

Weseman credited the school board with having the foresight not to design Langston Hughes or give it boundaries that would have filled it immediately. He said letting the school grow with its population made running the rest of the schools easier.

Overall, nine elementary schools saw increasing populations and six saw their populations decrease. Three junior highs have smaller enrollments than last year, while Southwest Junior High has 11 more.

“Every year there’s an anomaly like that,” Weseman said. “We can’t predict that.”

At the high school level, Lawrence High added 37 students and Free State added one student.

Weseman cautioned that the numbers at the secondary level are particularly fluid and change more than the elementary school level.

“In the next few weeks we’ll try to follow up with people and find out why they didn’t come back,” Weseman said. “Usually the first indication we’ll get is another school will call us and request a student’s transcript.”