One of the things that may surprise folks is that when school opens in August, we are already starting to plan for the following year.
Among the most challenging things that we face from a planning perspective is enrollment growth, and by mid-year, we are deep into decision making regarding anticipated changes in enrollment. When considering growth, it is important to note that growth is a good thing for schools. Growing enrollment means that programs that serve kids can grow. It means that staff teams at schools and in departments may stay together and continue to do good work together. It means that we can bring new people into our organization to serve kids and schools, and new people mean new perspectives and skills that can help us improve. Although the birth rate has declined in California for the past eight years, in Visalia, we have seen a growth in population that is reflected in increased enrollment. Since 2013, we have seen an average increase in district enrollment of just over 300 students per year. We believe that this growth is the result of families moving to Visalia for employment and for improved quality of life.
One of the sources of information that we have for planning is the City of Visalia. We have a strong relationship with city staff and meet with them monthly. One of the ongoing topics of conversation across our two staffs is growth. Because the city charts development, we have a sense for where increased enrollment at individual schools will occur. We have seen in recent years ongoing growth in northwest Visalia, but a new pattern in development shows that southeast Visalia is also a focus for residential development. And our schools reflect the growth in both of these areas: we have schools in the northwest and southeast that are full.
We have two options for schools that are at capacity but still have students to serve in their neighborhoods: shift or build. There are two ways to shift students: one is to enroll students at another school (hopefully near the original school) and the other is to change school boundaries to accommodate growth. Both of these are difficult processes under the best of circumstances. Building also takes two forms: placing temporary classrooms on a campus or building new schools. Temporary classrooms are a common first response to growth because they are expedient. The downside to temporary classrooms is that they put great pressure on the infrastructure of a school: restrooms, cafeteria space, playground area and so forth. Building a new school does require some boundary work, but is the best response to sustained growth. A new school is a permanent solution that allows a district to maintain balanced enrollment across schools and community. Additionally, building a new school is the only logical way that a school district may be proactive and anticipate growth.
One of the rules of thumb that we share with the city is that there should be an elementary school for every square mile in Visalia. It follows that middle and high schools be situated to form efficient school feeder groups. This reflects a shared value of the concept of the neighborhood school among the city and the district, and that concept grows from our desire to be as family-friendly as we can be.