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.
“We expect the numbers to move around a bit in the next few days,” Cortez said.
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.
“Instead of focusing on sheer size and volume, what we hope to do is make sure the students we have in our district continue to choose us because we offer the most comprehensive offerings,” Ashby said.
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.
Districts statewide are required to develop characteristics needed to become a high school graduate, and D-11 has identified eight, from critical thinker to effective communicator to empathetic collaborator. Students, staff and residents who attend the public sessions will be asked to keep those in mind when deciding what kind of education is needed to attain them, Ashby said.
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.
But D-49’s enrollment could be down this year, too. It had 22,397 students on count day last year. Enrollment was about 22,000 as of Thursday, said spokesman David Nancarrow.
D-11 also will slip in statewide size rankings. Of Colorado’s 178 public school districts, D-11 ranked 10th largest last school year, with Academy D-20 11th largest. School District 49 was the state’s 13th largest.
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