district 20

Lifting high her diploma, newly graduated Mariah Lemuel (center) and other graduates from Pine Creek High School head up the stairs at Clune Arena at the Air Force Academy on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. School District 20 held two graduations at Clune Arena on Wednesday. Clune Arena will be the site for Air Academy, Liberty and Discovery Canyon High Schools on Thursday, May 16.

A neck-and-neck battle between Pikes Peak region school districts has ended.

Unofficially, Academy School District 20 has overtaken Colorado Springs School District 11 as El Paso County’s largest school district, though official enrollment figures for the year won’t be released until January.

As of Oct. 3 — the annual “count day,” when schools tally their students for the state’s per-pupil funding — Academy D-20 in northern Colorado Springs had 26,657 students, up by 402 from last year, said spokeswoman Allison Cortez.

Colorado Springs D-11, the region’s oldest school district, was established in 1872 and until now reigned as the largest in the area. But now it’s down by about 300 students from last year’s fall enrollment of 26,395, said spokeswoman Devra Ashby.

That’s fewer lost students than the drop of 750 that D-11 officials projected, Ashby noted.

D-11 experienced its largest decline last school year, when it lost 1,032 students over the previous year. That led to layoffs and budget restructuring.

For Academy D-20, becoming the region’s largest district is exciting and daunting, said Superintendent Tom Gregory.

“Growth brings a lot of positives: exposure, awareness, reach and, of course, additional funding,” he said. “However, growing too fast can bring a host of challenges.”

Anticipating increased enrollment, D-20 officials succeeded in getting voter approval of a $230 million bond issue in 2016 to pay for two new elementary schools, one new middle school and upgrades at every existing school.

“Whether we are the smallest or largest district,” Gregory said, “our primary responsibility and focus are to the students, staff and taxpayers.”

Passing the enrollment baton has been projected for years, Ashby said.

D-11’s enrollment has been steadily declining since 2011, when the count was 29,509 students, reports the Colorado Department of Education.

Over the past five years, D-11 has lost 1,937 students, or 6.84% of total enrollment.

Contributing factors include the district’s aging residents, few new homes built within its boundaries, the popularity of choice education — meaning students can attend schools outside their neighborhoods — and a declining birth rate.

In 2009, D-11 closed eight schools. It closed two more in 2013. The district also repurposed a high school into a center for multiple alternative education programs. In 2016, D-11 closed one elementary school and reopened one that it had closed in 2009.

On the heels of releasing a new district master plan in August, leaders now will create an academic master plan, she said.

“We’re heading back out to the community to find out what people want to see in our schools: immersion, International Baccalaureate, busing for choice attendance, start times and scheduling,” Ashby said.

Public sessions similar to those held last year to develop the master plan will start next week.

Academy D-20 will take its top-dog position seriously, Gregory said.

“The title of the largest district in the area means we will be looked upon to be leaders in the issues and trends facing K-12 education today,” he said. “If we lead well, we will create a road map of how all students can achieve and succeed academically, socially and emotionally.”

Another fast-growing school district is in contention, too.

“We know after D-20 takes the lead, School District 49 will surpass them at some point,” Ashby said.

D-20 has less vacant land for construction than D-49, which stretches east of Colorado Springs and is now the region’s third-largest school district.

Contact the writer: 476-1656

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