LEWISTON — A year ago, 250 new students showed up on opening day at the city’s schools.
The unexpected surge put a squeeze on the School Department.
But this year, early enrollment figures show student growth has slowed to levels schools can comfortably handle. There’s more room on the playground, the cafeteria and classrooms at Montello Elementary and most other Lewiston schools.
Montello Principal Jim Cliffe, and other principals, are breathing a sigh of relief.
Over the past five years, student populations have grown by about 100 each year.
At Montello, “we were hit hard last year,” Cliffe said Thursday as he monitored students in the cafeteria getting their breakfast trays. “At this moment, we have 100 students less than last year. We have 695 students today.”
One hundred fewer students “makes a noticeable difference throughout the building,” Cliffe said. “People feel like they can breathe a little bit.”
Citywide, total enrollment Wednesday was 5,577, Superintendent Bill Webster said. That’s 62 more than last year.
That’s a growth slowdown, considering the district’s population trend in the past.
“While there’s still modest growth, it appears things are leveling off,” Webster said. “Knock on wood, but we’re in a much better position than a year ago to manage and meet the needs of students.”
Overall class sizes are smaller. Except for Martel Elementary School, every kindergarten classroom has between 16 and 18 students, under the state guideline of no more than 20 students.
Martel’s kindergarten classes have 23 students, but Martel has a dedicated education technician to help, Webster said. Principal Steve Whitfield has said his kindergarten teachers are happy. “The numbers look really good,” Webster said.
If the district enrollment growth continues at this year’s level, “we can meet our needs until the new (elementary) school opens in 2019.”
One reason for the enrollment slowdown is Acadia Academy, a public charter school in Lewiston that opened Sept. 6 for pupils in pre-K through grade two.
Sixty-one Lewiston students are attending the charter school, Webster said.
Another reason, Webster speculated, is that new families come initially to Lewiston. “They get their feet under them and decide (later) where to live. It’s not always Lewiston.”
With schools at or near capacity last year, the School Department scrambled to build a six-classroom building at Farwell Elementary, which is now open.
The goal of that building is to absorb new enrollment each year until the new elementary school opens in 2019.
Farwell Principal Jana Mates said the extra classrooms have helped.
“We’ve reduced class sizes from last year, especially in primary grades,” Mates said. Farwell has added a special education classroom, a pre-kindergarten which is full at 16, and a second grade.
The school’s enrollment versus classroom space makes a comfortable environment, Mates said.
“I’m very happy with class sizes,” she said.
At Lewiston High School, Principal Shawn Chabot said his freshman class is larger this year. Overall, the school has more students, 1,466 compared to last year’s 1,434, but 96 students are attending Lewiston Academy or Star Academy, programs that give more direct help to bring students up to grade level. That also frees up space in regular classrooms.
“It feels like a normal beginning of the year, and that’s good,” Chabot said. “It’s not that we don’t want more students, but it throws you for a loop. You want to have space and textbooks for everybody.”
The important population number is the one taken on Oct. 1, which is used by the Maine Department of Education to determine how much state money for education districts will receive.
Enrollment in Lewiston varies by the day, with students coming and going, which can make planning challenging.
For example, on the first day of school at Montello, 12 new students who had not registered showed up for school. “We’re happy to have them,” Cliffe said.