SALT LAKE CITY — Charter schools now account for more than 10 percent of Utah's public school student population, and the number of low-income students declined this year by roughly 5,000 students.
Those and other milestones came out in the results from an Oct. 1 student head count released Tuesday by the Utah State Office of Education.
Overall, Utah's education system grew by more than 11,700 students — a 1.9 percent increase — bringing the state's total K-12 population to 633,896 students. Most of the growth occurred in charter schools, which gained more than 6,000 students, an increase of about 9.9 percent. Charters now enroll 67,509 students.
This year's growth among charters mirrors that of previous years, showing those schools as having the largest portion of enrollment growth and the most rapid increases in student numbers.
"I think that you're seeing more people take advantage of the options that charter schools afford," said Cate Klundt, spokeswoman for the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools. "Charter schools are a real integral part of the Utah public education system. I think you're seeing people kind of branch out and make that choice."
This year, Utah added six new charter schools, bringing the total to 104 schools on Oct. 1. Next year, Utah is set to add another six charters, Klundt said.
"I think that as long as you see innovation and creativity and choice with charter schools, you will continue to see people moving toward institutions that can offer that," she said. "We're excited to welcome so many students into the charter school system."
District schools saw an overall boost of almost 5,700 students, but 17 of Utah's 41 districts had a net decrease in their student populations. The Alpine School District saw the largest net gains over last year of more than 1,700 students, and the Wasatch County School District saw the largest percentage increase at almost 5.5 percent.
This year, the Legislature provided funding for a projected enrollment increase of 7,951 students, almost 3,400 beneath the actual increase measured this fall. But because budgetary projections were within 1 percent of actual numbers, the difference shouldn't pose a significant funding problem for schools, according to Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah State Office of Education.
This year's enrollment figures will form a basis for education leaders and state lawmakers in determining next year's funding increases, he said.
"At this point, the State School Board will start looking at what we need to do to increase (per-student spending) and cover growth for students," Peterson said.
Currently, the five districts with the most students are the Alpine, Davis, Granite, Jordan and Canyons school districts. The largest high schools in the state include Granger, Copper Hills, Hunter, Lehi and Herriman high schools.
Kimberly Bird, spokeswoman for the Alpine School District, said Alpine and other districts are continually dealing with challenges that come with significant growth, especially having enough classroom space.
"Things are changing," Bird said. "I don't think that growth is something that scares us, but there are challenges that our board is addressing. And that is the need of (more) schools."
It's not an unexpected phenomenon. Most of the growth in Alpine has occurred in Lehi, Saratoga Springs, Eagle Mountain and the Vineyard area, and population projections have held within a small margin of actual numbers, according to Bird.
"It's not something that is surprising to us," she said. "We're happy with the growth."
Utah's student minority population also continues to grow. Since last year, schools have gained more than 5,500 minority students, now totaling more than 155,500 students. That puts them just short of the 25 percent mark compared with the total population.
Racial minorities currently make up a majority of the population in three districts — the Ogden, Salt Lake City and San Juan school districts. Granite is approaching that benchmark, with minorities making up 47 percent of its students this year.
Poverty also appears to be shrinking in Utah schools. Last year, roughly 227,000 students came from low-income families. That number came down to 222,000 students this year, about 36 percent of the total population.
"That's great news," Peterson said.
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