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Stats indicate much more to school growth than ‘Nissan effect’

Principal Rick Ross had hoped that his students were through with portable classrooms when they moved into the newly-built Madison Avenue Upper Elementary in January 2002. Rising enrollments due to growth in Madison County proved him wrong.

“We requested two portables, with two rooms on each side,” Ross said of his building needs for the upcoming school year.

When Nissan announced plans for its plant in Canton, area school officials braced for an influx of students. On a trip to Smyrna, Tenn., to talk to education officials who had gone through a similar experience, the Mississippians heard tales of building a school per year and having an annual 5% growth rate in school enrollments.

However, the Madison County School District hired its own demographer and found some interesting statistics in the projections, according to deputy superintendent Ronnie McGee.

According to McGee, the “Nissan effect” is not nearly as strong as the in-migration from the nearby Jackson neighborhoods, and the demographer’s findings, along with data from the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District bear that out.

“We will continue to see a great portion of our move-ins from Northeast Jackson,” he said.

Pinpointing how much growth is coming from the “Nissan effect” continues to be difficult for school district leaders across the area.

“When children register, we don’t ask if their parents work for Nissan,” said Hugh Carr, assistant superintendent in Rankin County School District. The district continues to experience a 3% to 3.5% growth in enrollment per year. According to Carr, its consistent with the study used to plan the current round of construction in Rankin County schools before Nissan announced its plans to locate in Canton.

“I don’t think we’ve seen much impact,” said Jackson Public Schools (JPS) public affairs director Peggy Hampton. She noted that specific information would need to come from Dr. Willie Johnson, executive director for institutional research at JPS, who was unable to speak with the Mississippi Business Journal before deadline. Canton Public Schools superintendent Reuben Meyers was also unavailable for comment as well.

The Madison County School District had 8,431 students in 1998 when the district passed its last $55-million bond issue for school construction. In 2000, when Nissan announced its intentions to locate a plant in Canton, enrollment was up to 8,899, a 3% increase. In 2002, enrollment went up to 9,423 — an increase of 4%. Enrollment at the end of May 2003 was 9,510, just before the Nissan Canton plant opened. The current spring semester ended with 9,898 students enrolled — an increase of 300 students since the opening of the plant, according to McGee.

The Nissan plant will continue to affect growth in enrollment in Madison County, but by a much smaller amount that first anticipated.

“The prediction is that the rate is a little over 2%,” McGee said. And the increases are not spread out over the district. Most of the growth is currently concentrated in the southern part of the county in the Central Attendance Zone, McGee explained. Nor is the growth occurring in all grades. The average grade size district wide is 780 — but the fourth and sixth grades are considerably larger, with 810 students rising to the fourth grade and 850 rising to the sixth grade. Studies from Smyrna show that the typical Nissan employee who comes in with a new plant has children aged 9-11, thereby causing enrollments in those grades to swell and creating a wave effect through the education system as they get older.

“Now those kids are moving through the pipeline to the high schools,” said McGee.

A similar situation exists in Rankin County, with the most growth occurring in the Northwest Zone (serving Flowood and the Reservoir), Brandon Zone and the Florence Zone, according to Carr. Rankin County plans to have completed two elementary schools in the Northwest Zone by August 2004, with a new Brandon High School and a new Florence Elementary scheduled for completion in August 2005.

“And elementary school kids tend to turn into high school kids,” said Carr.

The growth situation is most acute at Madison Avenue Elementary, with 710 children in grades K-2, Madison Upper Elementary with 750 students in grades 3-5, and 1,320 children in grades 6-8 at Madison Middle School, said McGee. Some schools where space is just staying even with enrollment are Velma Jackson Elementary and Luther Branson Elementary in the North Zone.

The continued prospects for increased enrollment have prompted Madison County to seek another bond issue for $40 million to make additional improvements to county schools. While various improvement projects are planned for all three zones, tentative plans to alleviate overcrowding issues include a new K-5 school in the Central Zone (site undetermined), a new 6-8 grade middle school in the Central Zone (site undetermined) and additional classrooms at East Flora Elementary, according to statements made in public meetings to get input from district parents.

And Madison County isn’t alone in seeking new construction funds. Rankin County recently added $12 million to its construction projects to cover unexpected enhancements needed in district buildings targeted for renovation. The money doesn’t go towards any specific project, with funds spread out over the remaining construction budgets, Carr said. East Flora Elementary principal Martha D’Amico hopes the new classrooms can accommodate the growth school officials foresee in the area. Enrollment was up by 25 students this year over last at the K-5 facility.

“That’s a whole classroom,” she said, who noted that there were 330 enrolled this academic year at the school.

D’Amico said that they have not seen a lot of increases that can be attributed directly to the Nissan plant, although they foresee some growth due to new subdivisions and other developments underway in the school’s attendance zone. “I think that Nissan will move development up in this direction.”

Ross is facing at least one additional section with 250 rising third graders that move to Madison Upper Elementary from Madison Avenue Elementary — an increase of one classroom over last year’s total of 230 second graders — without any new students being added to the district over the summer.

“It’s just a constant growth,” he said, adding that each grade in his school will have nine sections next year.

Carr notes an even more unpredictable phenomenon than the “Nissan effect” — the word-of-mouth a school district generates by the very mention of new school buildings. “When you build a new building, it seems to draw and attract people (to the district).”

McGee is keeping an eye on the incoming development, including numerous residential developments coming into the area bounded by Highway 463 and Yandell Road — and the statistical studies allow him to gauge the impact in a fairly precise fashion. “That’s what keeps me up at night, because I know that 60% of those households will be producing 1.8 children, and 88% of those kids will be educated in the public schools,” McGee said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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