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Call it a milestone: Utah's public school enrollment has officially topped 600,000 for the first time.
This fall, 600,985 students filled Utah's public schools 13,240 more than last year, according to State Office of Education data released Friday. Charter school enrollment has also, for the first time, surged beyond 50,000 kids.
"What this shows is Utah schools continue to grow, and they continue to grow more diverse," said Mark Peterson, a state office spokesman.
Last school year, 22 percent of Utah kids were ethnic minorities. This year, that number grew to 23 percent, with Latinos comprising the largest group at 15.5 percent of all Utah students.
The ethnic make-up of Utah's classrooms, however, is not the only change this year.
The Davis School District is now officially the state's second largest district, with 68,342 students. Last year, it was tied with Granite for enrollment.
But Davis grew by about 600 students while Granite saw its overall enrollment fall by more than 100 students. Granite is now the state's third largest district.
Alpine is the state's biggest, with 70,811 pupils.
Chris Williams, a Davis spokesman, said most of Davis' increase comes from growing families already living in the district. And he said Davis doesn't expect that growth to stop any time soon, with some projecting as many as 80,000 school-age kids living within its boundaries by 2025.
Williams said the district is considering moving more of its schools to a year-round schedule to help accommodate growth in the near future and is also contemplating buying land in North Salt Lake for another elementary school.
Ben Horsley, a Granite spokesman, said parts of Granite are still growing, though its overall enrollment has held fairly steady in recent years.
The district opened a new school in Magna last year, Elk Run Elementary, and plans to open another new school that will focus on science, technology, engineering and math in the fall.
"Elk Run [Elementary] relieved surging population at four schools in the Magna area, and this school will also relieve some pressure on some of our schools in the West Valley area," Horsley said.
Overall enrollment, however, has been holding steady largely because of aging neighborhoods within the district. But Horsley said the district expects populations may shift again as the economy improves and more people move into some of the undeveloped areas of western Salt Lake County.
He noted that aging neighborhoods also may see growth again as residents sell their homes to younger families.
Though many districts grew this year, perhaps the most striking growth was among charter schools, which are independently-run public schools.
Their enrollment surged past 50,000, meaning about 8 percent of all public school students now attend charters. Charter enrollment swelled by 13.2 percent this year over the year before.
It's growth that doesn't surprise Lia Whitman, co-founder and director of operations of Pacific Heritage Academy, a charter school that opened this fall in Salt Lake City.
The school focuses on "expeditionary learning," which school leaders describe as project-based, hands-on education. In a nod to the state's increasingly diverse population, the charter also works to meld culture and academics.
About 55 percent of the school's students are of Pacific Islander heritage, and the next largest group are Latinos, Whitman said.
The school is designed to have an island feel, said co-founder and executive director Ofa Kinikini Moeai. Kids are divided into "learning villages," music fills the hallways and a full-size replica of a Polynesian voyaging canoe sits in the school's great hall a metaphor for the students' own journeys through life.
But the school's educators encourage students of all cultures to think more deeply about their own heritages.
"Regardless of what cultures we come from we're always stronger people when we connect ourselves to our roots," said Moeai. "They can study math and science or whatever, but if they don't make a personalized connection with that, that learning will not be as significant and lasting."
The school already has about 450 students in grades K-8 and a waiting list, Whitman said.
Statewide, charter school enrollment will likely continue to grow next year, with another eight new charter schools already slated to open in the fall, Peterson said.
"I think it's fantastic," Whitman said of the trend. "We really want regular schools to know we are in partnership with them and we're not there to take students away from them, but we're just there to offer options to parents, to provide something that has been lacking in the traditional school system."
Utah school enrollment grows
Utah's public school population grew by more than 2 percent to 600,985 students this school year, according to the State Office of Education. Here are Utah's largest districts as of Oct. 1.
1 Alpine • 70,811
2. Davis • 68,342
3. Granite • 67,600
4. Jordan • 52,043
5. Canyons • 33,528
6. Weber • 30,732
7. Nebo • 30,494
8. Washington • 26,131
9. Salt Lake City • 23,759
10. Cache • 15,890