Weldon Cooper estimates 2% growth in IWCS enrollment through 2029

Published 7:04 pm Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center projects Isle of Wight County Schools’ enrollment will remain relatively flat over the next five years, in stark contrast with an out-of-state study that estimates more than 1,000 new students will enroll upon the buildout of more than a dozen planned housing developments.

School-age population estimates are required by state law to distribute Virginia’s sales and use tax revenue proportionally among the state’s 131 school divisions. Virginia has, for years, relied on Weldon Cooper to produce this data annually.

Weldon Cooper’s 2024 report lists Isle of Wight’s Sept. 30, 2023, divisionwide enrollment at 5,479 students. The total is forecast to grow by only 121 additional students, or 2.1%, by the start of the 2028-29 school year.

Ohio-based Cooperative Strategies completed a study for IWCS in 2023 that estimated a 1,000-plus influx of students from new housing would put four of the county’s nine schools over capacity. The Weldon Cooper study, unlike Cooperative Strategies’ numbers, is based solely on the enrollment data each school division had reported to the Virginia Department of Education as of Sept. 30 and each locality’s birth rate.

“We did not account for building permits and proposed housing developments in our school enrollment projections,” said Zachary Jackson, a research and policy analyst with Weldon Cooper. “This would be quite an undertaking considering that we produced these projections for each of Virginia’s 131 school divisions.”

Weldon Cooper looks at the county as a whole, which does present a challenge for determining growth in specific areas of the county,” said IWCS spokeswoman Lynn Briggs. “It does not appear that Weldon Cooper considers approved or proposed housing developments as part of their methodology. For example, Isle of Wight is seeing significant growth in the Carrollton and Smithfield areas. Cooperative Strategies looked at current subdivisions and analyzed student yields by attendance zones, which showed projected growth by school. In addition, some schools, especially in the Windsor and Carrsville areas may have limited growth or even a decrease in student population. By only viewing net growth, student enrollment increases are tempered by decreases throughout the division.”

Cooperative Strategies identified 13 then-planned subdivisions, 10 of which had already received rezoning approval at the time of the study’s completion last spring. Since then, Smithfield’s Town Council has approved mixed-use zoning for the 267-home Grange at 10Main community slated for the western edge of the town’s historic district, and has received another rezoning application for “The Promontory,” which would add another 262 homes and five commercial parcels along Benns Church Boulevard.

Two additional applications – one proposing a 317-home Benns Church Boulevard subdivision known as “Gwaltney Farms” and another proposing an additional 136 homes at the dormant 2005-approved St. Luke’s Village development – are under review by planning and zoning staff at the county level.

A third study, which Bethesda, Maryland-based TischlerBise Inc. completed for the county in 2020, forecasted based on 2018 and 2019 data that Isle of Wight would grow by roughly 0.8% per year to a countywide 39,255 residents by 2024 and wouldn’t cross the 40,000 mark until 2027. Census data, however, shows Isle of Wight has grown 4% over the past two years and had an estimated 40,151 residents as of mid-2022, making it the seventh fastest-growing county in Virginia.

According to Virginia Department of Health and census data, the annual number of deaths in Isle of Wight exceeded the number of births from 2016 through 2022. From 2010 through 2019, Isle of Wight averaged 345 births and 346 deaths annually. In 2020, Isle of Wight saw 423 deaths, or 9.8% above its pre-pandemic average, followed by 442 deaths in 2021 and 535 deaths in 2022. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, Isle of Wight  saw over 120 coronavirus-linked deaths from the start of 2020 through March 9, 2023 – a day before Johns Hopkins stopped updating its COVID-19 dashboard.

Divisionwide enrollment, which had fluctuated between 5,500 and 5,600 students in 2019 and prior, dropped to just under 5,300 students at the start of the 2020-21 school year when Isle of Wight became one of the first Hampton Roads divisions to reopen its schools following the nearly six-month state-mandated closure aimed at slowing the early spread of COVID-19. By the start of the 2021-22 school year, enrollment had bounced back to 5,487 students but declined again to 5,481 in 2022 and 5,438 as of September 2023, according to enrollment data school officials shared in October.

The lingering declines in enrollment are likely tied to an uptick in the number of parents choosing to homeschool their children. According to the division’s enrollment data, there were 231 homeschooled students in Isle of Wight during the 2019-20 school year. The number nearly doubled to 404 by 2020-21. It fell to 379 in 2021-22 but rose again to 386 last school year. As of Sept. 30, the number had surged to 471.

“The pandemic created an unprecedented challenge to projecting school enrollment,” Weldon Cooper’s 2024 methodology report states. “In fall 2020, Virginia public schools experienced a sudden drop of nearly 50,000 students. Recovery has been slow for many school divisions, which makes the trajectory of school enrollment uncertain. As of fall 2023, nearly 40,000 fewer students were enrolled in Virginia public schools compared to fall 2019.”

Whether Weldon Cooper or Cooperative Strategies turns out to be the more accurate predictor of IWCS enrollment will depend on when Isle of Wight’s new housing gets built and purchased or rented.

What’s not included in the Cooperative Strategies study or an updated report division officials presented to the School Board in December listing the now 15 approved and proposed housing developments is the year-to-year impact as each is built in phases. Mallory Pointe, the largest of the listed developments at 812 homes, is estimated to generate 277 students. Its first phase, which calls for 135 single-family lots, broke ground last year but doesn’t yet have any completed houses.