Surprise! Durham Public Schools grows by 700 students.

Enrollment in Durham Public Schools is growing for the first time in five years. Now school and county leaders are trying to understand and handle it.

As of Tuesday, DPS has 33,001 students across 53 schools, almost 700 more students than the past year.

It was expecting a decline of 168.

DPS spokesman William “Chip” Sudderth attributed the growth to better academic results, better community outreach and outside partners advocating for public education in Durham County.

He said the district is still figuring out where the students are coming from, such as from private or charter schools or new families moving to Durham,

But the sudden swing could crowd some schools at the same time the state has mandated smaller elementary classroom sizes.

DPS expects it will need 60 new elementary classrooms by the 2021-22 school year, with about half of those for new Pre-K programs as the county expands its Universal Pre-K initiative. Creekside Elementary alone will require 19 new rooms.

At a meeting of the school board and county commissioners Tuesday, Commissioner Brenda Howerton asked for patience as staff figure out where to find the money.

“We’re asking to let the staff do what they have to do so we can have the money,” she said. “Because right now, we’re up a creek.”

New School Standards

Under the state’s old standards, kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms could have 22 children. The new state standards reduce that to:

Kindergarten - 18 students

First Grade - 16 students

Second Grade - 17 students

Third Grade - 17 students

Schools cannot exceed the guidelines by more than three students.

DPS staff presented Bethesda Elementary as an example of overcrowding during a Tuesday meeting between the school board and county commissioners.

It will need five more classrooms but doesn’t have the space for more students because its cafeteria is already at maximum capacity.

Crowding has already cost some Durham schools their art and music spaces.

DPS staff offered two solutions: Build a new school for the district or reduce Bethesda’s enrollment by more than 100 children.

Two new schools

If no action is taken, the average Durham elementary school will be crowded in first through third grades.

DPS owns two sites being considered for new elementary schools, one on Scott King Road (Site C) and the other at the intersection of Roxboro Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway (Site F).

But the board has been talking about Site C for at least a decade. As Tuesday’s meeting started focusing on a bond and how to pay for a new school some school board members grew impatient.

“We should’ve done Site C a while ago,” Board Chair Mike Lee said. “If we continue to wait, it’s going to be three (schools).”

In a Facebook post Wednesday, Lee noted that his son’s school, Lucas Middle School, has gained 100 students despite just coming off a “low-performing” label.

DPS staff estimate a school at the Scott King Road site would cost more than $37 million and one on the Roxboro-MLK site around $49 million.

Some school board members asked the county manager to have an analysis of finances by the next joint board meeting Nov. 19.

“The longer we keep looking and looking, and planning and planning, the price goes up,” board member Minnie Forte-Brown said.

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Trent Brown covers the Town of Cary and other odds and ends. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019 and is a Collegiate Network fellow.