Phoenix high-school district enrolls 27,000 students for first time in more than 35 years

(Marianna Hauglie /DD)
The enrollment of 27,000 students this year in the Phoenix Union High School District has been attributed in part to positive public opinion of specialized schools such as Bioscience High School. (Marianna Hauglie/DD)

The Phoenix Union High School District has more than 27,000 students for the first time in more than 35 years, surpassing the district’s enrollment projections, Assistant Superintendent Nora Gutierrez said.

There were 739 more students than last year who choose district schools, instead of the projected 84 students. There was a 2.8 percent increase in total enrollment from last year, according to a district report. Nine of the district’s 16 schools increased enrollment.

Cesar Chavez High School, Metro Tech High School, North High School and Maryvale High School all saw increases of more than 100 students.

Bioscience High School used a lottery system for the first time for this year’s freshman class because the school received more qualified applicants than they could accept, Principal Quintin Boyce said.

The school, which opened in 2006, experienced a 10-15 student increase this year, according to Boyce. The school expected enrollment to rise every year, so it increased its faculty and staff in preparation, he said.

Enrollment in the district has gradually increased over 15 years by roughly 5,500 students, according to the district report.

The district’s enrollment projections are normally accurate, sometimes only off by one or two students, Gutierrez said.

Rick Brammer, a partner at Applied Economics, a consulting firm specializing in school population, said the district is too large for only one factor to cause the increase.

Two reasons for the increase are population growth in the metropolitan area and the changing demographics of the city, Brammer said.

During the recession, more investors bought property in the Phoenix area. As vacancy rates dropped, more people started to rent, Brammer said. Renters tend to be young families with kids, he said.

Additionally, a district experiences natural cycles of enrollment numbers, Brammer said. People stay in their homes after their kids have grown, causing a decrease in school enrollment. As new families eventually move in, schools see an increase in enrollment.

“Part of it is the population is going up. That’s why enrollment is going up — simple answer, right?” Brammer said. “The not-so-simple side of it is that we have an environment of choice in public education. So, just because a kid lives in a district doesn’t mean he goes to school in that district, if he or she goes at all.”

Brammer worked with PUHSD during the 2007-08 school year, projecting future enrollment.

During the 2007-08 school year, 60 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds who lived in the district attended school within the district. The rest took classes online, attended a charter school, went to school in a different district or did not attend high school, Brammer said.

“To be only serving 60 percent of kids means that if the perception is that you are providing a better program, you can gain enrollment without anything else happening because there’s so many kids who had chosen something else,” Brammer said.

Gutierrez said the public’s opinion of the district has become more positive, in part because of magnet programs and specialized schools such as Bioscience High School.

Magnet programs offer specific areas of study within a school, such as medical and health studies at Alhambra High School and computer studies at Carl Hayden Community High School.

The district also has entire schools specialized in one area, such as science at Bioscience High School and public service at Franklin Police and Fire High School.

“We offer at Phoenix Union a variety of different options that can appeal to any kid. I think as a result, we’re seeing our numbers go up,” Boyce said.

Gutierrez attributed the enrollment increase to various reasons, including the start of online enrollment and stronger recruitment efforts.

The number of students was in line with his predictions when Applied Economics worked with the district in the 2007-2008 school year, Brammer said.

Brammer projected 27,468 students for the 2013-14 school year. This year actually has 27,031 students, according to the district document.

The district lost students this past decade due to the combined effects of the recession, the passing of Senate Bill 1070, which required people without U.S. citizenship to carry documentation at all times, and the Legal Arizona Workers Act, a state law that penalizes employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers, Brammer said.

“It went down before it went up, so even though the projection was pretty good now, there were years where I’m pretty sure it wasn’t quite so close,” Brammer said.

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