Elementary enrollment is climbing again, after a 15-year decline

After a decade and a half of decreases in US elementary school enrollments, the numbers are about to head up again: The babies of the baby-boom generation are beginning their formal education. Although the rise will affect various states and districts differently, concern is already evident over how the increases will be felt in the classroom.

Educators warn that benefits reaped from decreased class size could be lost, if the additional students are merely absorbed into the existing number of classes. The needs of the skyrocketing Hispanic pupil population may also be overlooked, some analysts fear. Similarly, other special needs programs may be squeezed out of budgets and classrooms, as regular programs claim more of both.

''We are entering a period when the (education) profession is going to have to be out in force so that . . . legislators know that the increase . . . is once again upon us and are able to deal with it,'' says Samuel Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

After bottoming out this year at 26.9 million pupils, the American public elementary school population (kindergarten through eighth grade) is expected to start increasing. By the end of the decade it should reach 30.2 million. Although this won't equal the 1969 peak of 32.5 million, the increases will fall disproportionately on certain regions.

Western states, Mexican border states, and Florida are expected to see the most substantial increases. These will result from the combination of a higher birth rate, continuing westward and southward migration, and both legal and illegal immigration. In fact, in most of those states, increases are already affecting Grades 1 through 3.

People in Florida were shocked last fall, when a jump of nearly 11,000 in the number of elementary students over the previous year left the state with a $6.7 million gap in education funds.

In California, Sacramento is one school district where the increase has begun. According to Walter Parsons, research administrator for the Sacramento City Unified School District, the state capital has seen an increase of 1,700 elementary students over the last four years, pushing the system's total to 40, 000. With the secondary school population still falling, this means the elementary school increase is even more significant than the figures alone suggest.

''Right now we have sufficient space to cover the increases, and we expect to for the next four to five years,'' said Mr. Parsons. But the heightened demands, he went on to explain, are being met by taking classroom space back from remedial reading and federal assistance programs, which had found room to grow because of lower enrollments in the 1970s.

''The resource teachers will find it difficult to adjust when they have to leave the quiet and space of their own room to return to a corner of the regular classroom,'' Parsons added. ''I think the increased class sizes could have a negative impact'' on the special programs.

There is no strong consensus on the effect of increased class sizes on the quality of education. ''There seems to be, and will probably continue to be, a tendency to solve the problem with increased class size,'' said Nikki Filby of Far West Laboratory, a federally funded education research and development organization in San Francisco. ''There's not much evidence it makes a great difference as far as student achievement, but, on the whole, teachers are much less satisfied because they feel they are less attentive to students who need special help.''

But Mr. Sava pointed to research showing that children in smaller classes exhibit more self-confidence and go on to demonstrate more self-development. ''The first major wave of dropouts occurs at the beginning of the secondary level,'' he said, ''and it tends to be youngsters who didn't get enough attention and remedial work in elementary school.''

Of course, not all of the enrollment increases will be met by increased class sizes: More teachers are going to have to be hired. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, annual demand for new teachers in the public schools will jump from 124,000 this year to 156,000 next year, and 163,000 in 1986. These figures reflect the fact that a large number of teachers are reaching retirement age, just as the enrollment increase hits.

Education-watchers also offer mixed response on whether a need for increased budgets will be met quickly. Some, such as Terry Zoulas, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Education, feel that ''any additional money needed will come to the schools because of the times.'' Florida officials say they are confident the state legislature, which has recently exhibited willingness to pick up the bill for extended school hours and programs to attract new teachers, will fill this year's education budget gap.

But others maintain that, despite a proliferation of national reports on education and increased legislative attention, the public still is not as supportive of education as it once was.

There is concern that some of the states facing the largest enrollment increases are also the least likely to increase monetary support. The National Association of Elementary School Principals rates Texas, Utah, and Nevada as ''unfavorable funding prospects.'' Others fear that the increased attention being given the American high school, as typified by a number of recent nationwide reports highlighting secondary education, will obscure the growing needs of elementary schools.

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