In Fort Mill schools, there are numbers and there are faces. Superintendent Chuck Epps will wait and see the numbers. It is already sold on the faces.
“There’s a bunch of people, I see it in their faces,” Epps said at the school board meeting Tuesday night. “I don’t know if it’s just a return to some kind of normality. There are a lot of enthusiastic educators ready to go.
The school staff returned last Monday. The students return next Monday. Wednesday brought a district-wide meeting of educators. Meet the Teacher, freshman orientation, and similar events at all grade levels take place this week.
“Schools will be alive again with activity,” Epps said. “Parents, teachers, students. Fun stuff. Good time of year.
As to how many people will fill the Fort Mill schools, time will tell. The district projects it will have about 1,000 more students than Rock Hill schools, a fact that puts off Epps when he considers that Fort Mill had the smallest district in York County less than three decades ago.
“We think we’re going to have over 18,000 attendees,” Epps said. “But we can’t count them today, a week ahead.”
Student numbers impact everything from state funding to classroom teacher needs. Last year, the district ended with nearly 17,900 students. The latest figure for the coming year is just over 18,000. A further 300 students have yet to take tests and register.
“These are the ones we know,” Epps said. “We always have appointments.”
The district had forecast enrollment at around 18,600 to start the year. One grade in particular was a few hundred students lower on Tuesday night than first thought.
“Kindergarten enrollment at this time this year compared to this time last year is less,” Epps said. “And that hasn’t happened in years.”
There are lags. The fourth and fifth years are elevated. School board president Kristy Spears said ninth grade was the biggest class overall. Already, the district has moved a kindergarten position to a fourth-grade teaching position. Epps said he’s not sure if the housing market, the pandemic or other factors could be responsible for the drop in kindergarten enrollment.
“I don’t know why they’re not showing up at 5K, and maybe they still will,” he said.
The massive Elizabeth subdivision is being built, as are others in Fort Mill and Tega Cay, which may further increase listings with new phases.
“We’re talking about growth of just 500 instead of 800,” Epps said. “We are still growing. It is a unique situation.
The district will get a day one number, which is usually up to 200 fewer students than it will be on day 10. The initial number could still be in the 17,000s. Registrations generally increase monthly.
“Just wait,” Epps said. “They will come.”
As the year progresses, the district may well reach or approach its previous number used for budgeting and preparation.
“I suspect that when the dust settles, we’ll probably be somewhere in those 18,600 or so,” Epps said. “But who knows? Maybe we won’t.
Board member Michele Branning said one challenge with first day numbers is kindergarten, where a staggered start means students have different first days during the first week of school.
“We are phasing in kindergarten,” Branning said. “They start gradually, so it takes a minute to catch up.”
Epps said there was plenty of room at the kindergarten level even though more students were showing up than there currently are. The numbers are somewhat fuzzy a week before school by nature, but they are not guesses. Spears said staff have been working to not only enroll and anticipate enrollment, but also to accommodate changes for students who may not return.
“If we had the request for records, if we know they moved or they went to another school or whatever, we took them down,” Spears said.
Registration is unofficial and may impact school funding until students attend. Board member Wayne Bouldin said overall college enrollment appears to be relatively stable. Elementary is down 3% and secondary is up 6.4%, according to current estimates.
Either way, Epps is confident the district will be ready to educate as many of York County’s students as possible. He hopes pandemic issues are a thing of the past and that school will be back this fall, in a way that hasn’t been in a while.
“It’s been two years of stops and starts,” Epps said. “And we ended up in a go last year, the last part of the year. I think everyone is looking forward to seeing people’s faces.