With Hispanic students accounting for almost all increased local school enrollment over the past five years and the growing uncertainty over the future of immigration law, local school officials say they are more careful in planning for school district needs.
“I think people would have to agree that we haven’t seen a more uncertain period in this country’s last hundred-year history in terms of not knowing what’s going to happen ... particularly in regard to those numbers regarding immigration — legal or illegal,” Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said.
“It’s one of the reasons for the past 10 years that we’ve talked about as a board of education being very careful to not jump out and build huge new spaces that we expect to fill up based on current trends.”
Numbers provided by the school districts showed that overall enrollment in Hall County Schools has only grown by 706 students (2.66 percent) over the past five years, while Gainesville City Schools have grown by 532 students (7.2 percent) over the same time period. The number of non-Hispanic students decreased in both districts over the five years — by 809 students (4.92 percent) in Hall County and 36 students (1.1 percent) in Gainesville
Both districts saw double-digit percentage increases in Hispanic growth. In Hall County, the number of Hispanic students grew by 1,515 students (15 percent), while the increase in Gainesville was 568 students over the same period (13.7 percent).
“It’s not all that surprising because when you look at the percentage growth we’ve had with our Hispanic population over the last five or 10 years,” incoming Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams said. “That’s predominantly where we are growing as system.”
Schofield said Hall County is seeing up to 600-700 students a year who are English language learners.
“We don’t ask a lot of questions when people come in our door,” Schofield said. “One of the beautiful things about public schools is everybody’s welcome. If you live here, we’re going to teach you. We keep somewhere in the range of 5,000 English language learners in our district. What that tells me is that we still have a lot of people coming to this community, even children, whose primary language is not English.”
Williams said there are “definitely unknowns” when it comes to how immigration could affect growth in the two local school districts, but funding changes wouldn’t likely happen quickly since the state bases allotments of funds on numbers reported each October and usually changes slowly.
“Even if there is an abrupt change, we’ll see that over a couple of years in our state allotment sheet,” he said.
Williams said Gainesville has three elementary schools with enrollments at or near 1,000 students. The new Mundy Mill Academy, an elementary school that will open in August, will help lower enrollment numbers at other elementary schools in the district.
“As the numbers start to change, we will take care of planning the meetings and whatever else has to happen to make sure we’re prepared for an increase or decrease or even just the same enrollment,” he said. “I definitely don’t want to overreact to a year’s data. At the same time, we would welcome the numbers to just to kind of even out for a little while as we’re working on the infrastructure and making sure we have suitable environments for students to work in.”
Schofield said that the fact that other student demographic populations saw decreases in enrollment shows that “there hasn’t been a current trend” in Hall County in terms of growth numbers.
“I’m just appreciative of a board that again keeps an eye on the future, but realizes we are living in a unique time in a unique place in Hall County and it does not lend itself to putting things down in stone,” Schofield said. “ We’re waiting for some normalcy, but the new normalcy appears to be you just have to wait and see who shows up. It’s not a lack of planning; it’s planning for the uncertainty that we just find ourselves in the midst of.”