By Andrew Cluley
This year officials with Plante Moran Cresa have walked the over 3.3 million square feet of Ann Arbor Public Schools 32 school buildings to get a better idea of how much capacity the district has for students. The study will serve as an important tool for district leaders in planning for the future, but is also another great sign that programs and new initiatives put in place in recent years are attracting students and filling buildings.
The study targets filling a building to 90 percent of capacity to leave flexibility for the natural ebb and flow of class sizes. It also leaves a bit of room for AAPS to grow and implement new programs. The overall utilization of elementary schools is currently at 95 percent of the target, and nearly 90 percent in the middle and high schools.
Just a few years ago the district would have had a much different report, with Northside Elementary for example only about one-third full. The School Board at the time set forth a plan to enhance programing and see if that would help boost enrollment. Two years later A2 Steam at Northside has filled the building, and new initiatives have boosted enrollment at all schools.
The report also shows strong enrollment at all three comprehensive high schools. Already interest in the International Baccalaureate program is bringing up enrollment at Huron High School as well as Scarlett and Mitchell. Skyline has doubled the size of their most popular magnet programs, and Pioneer has had two straight years of growth.
Trustee Andy Thomas says he’s happy with the report, and says it’s noteworthy some of the recommendations that aren’t being made today. “For example the report did not say, gee, you have three elementary schools that are way under capacity you really need to think about closing one, or two, or perhaps all three of those schools,” Thomas says. “There is also nothing in here that addresses redistricting or the need to redistrict to align things.”
Part of the reason why redistricting isn’t a recommendation is the areas of likely population growth are mostly on the outside edges of the district. Board Vice-President Christine Stead says a district policy also gets credit for reducing the need to go through the challenging redistricting process. “Our internal opportunity for school choice which we offer our families first, kind of mitigates against that redistricting mechanism that ten years ago would have been very meaningful when we were very strict on boundaries,” Stead says. “People will move for programs that they’re excited about, we’ve seen that with K-8 STEAM as well as a handful of other things. Inflicting change on them isn’t necessarily as well received as placing a new, inspiring program someplace that people want to go to, and so that’s been our strategy so far.”
The capacity report will likely help shape the number of internal and then external schools of choice seats that will be available in some of the buildings that are currently most full. Increasing or decreasing the number of seats available combined with quality educational programming can serve as a valve to ease any concerns of overcrowding and ensure all buildings are as close to optimal capacity as possible.
The study also gives the district important information on where new housing developments are most likely to drive enrollment increases. In general the report shows the northeast part of the city is an area that is most likely to need additional capacity, while the southeast corner of the district has the most opportunity for using new programing to attract additional students.
Plante Moran Cresa also highlighted AAPS has an opportunity to grow in the area of Pre-K, where the district currently has very limited capacity. Plante Moran officials say there is a strong connection in retaining students in kindergarten that have already been attending a Pre-K program in a school district.
Superintendent Jeanice Swift says it’s great to have this baseline capacity study to use going forward. She’s committed to have annual capacity reviews each fall. Swift also hopes future capacity studies can incorporate more detailed algorithms to more accurately portray the true capacity of the W. Scott Westerman, Jr. Preschool and Family Center and the Pathways to Success Academic Campus as these are more complicated to determine as a result of students attending on individualized schedules.
Board members say this continuous monitoring of capacity can be a good way to measure how successful programs are at attracting students, and will be a useful tool to plan ahead as changes inside and outside of the district impact future enrollment numbers. “Whitmore Lake for instance, I think they’re holding on now, but if that should change, same with Ypsilanti, and so what policies coming out of the state and what financial challenges do to districts around us, what that means to us I’m just curious. I’m also interested in as we increase residents does that mean we look at decreasing parts of our choice program,” says Trustee Simone Lightfoot.
Consistent monitoring of building capacity will help the school board ensure that the district has the programs and policies in place to make sure they are getting the best use of the over 3.3 million square feet in school buildings, or add additional space if needed.