LEWISTON — At one table kindergarten students Morgan LaFlamme, Cyrus Brackley and four more 5- and 6-year-olds worked on their sentences about plants.
In the Farwell Elementary School class were six more tables, each filled with busy little students. Teacher Sherri-Ann LaVallee has 27 in her class, a high number for kindergarten.
Statewide, the number of students is going down, prompting some schools to close. But in Lewiston-Auburn, the number of students is on the rise, especially in the early grades. Both cities are seeing the results of a baby boom. Higher numbers have filled elementary schools, including three new ones.
A slow-down seems unlikely, given 2010 Census numbers that say the population of children under 5 years old has grown in Lewiston and Auburn, again bucking a statewide trend.
One reason for more schoolchildren in Lewiston is the Somali population, which continues to grow. English Language Learner students now make up 20 percent of Lewiston’s student population of 5,000.
But student growth is also higher in schools where there are few Somali families, including Farwell, and in Auburn.
Educators say that means families are having more children, and more families are moving in. “We have a school system viewed as attractive, not only to the immigrant population but other families moving to Lewiston,” Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said.
Auburn’s October enrollment numbers are usually higher than the April numbers, Auburn Superintendent Tom Morrill said, but “this year our April numbers were higher. People are moving in.”
Lewiston’s Farwell, built in 2007, has so many early-grade students it’s moving prekindergarten students to another school this fall because it needs space for a third kindergarten class.
A few miles away, the Geiger Elementary School, built in 2009, was designed to have four classes of each grade. “It now has five kindergartens, five first grades and five second grades,” Webster said.
Enrollment has exceeded projections done when Lewiston was planning the two schools. Hoping to eventually replace the aging, overcrowded Martel and Longley elementary schools, Lewiston has met with Maine Department of Education officials, stressing that enrollment growth needs to be better represented in future school construction projects, Webster said.
This year, Farwell is handling more kindergarten students with extra ed techs. “Still, you have the teacher responsible for all those report cards, progress monitoring,” Principal Althea Walker said.
She’s hoping the third class will bring relief next year. Recent registration numbers show kindergarten classes should be 17 students in each class next fall.
The situation is similar in Auburn schools.
Park Avenue School, which opened in 2006, “is overflowing,” Superintendent Morrill said. Park Avenue was built for 325 students; it now has 381.
Park Avenue has handled more students by converting a room for student projects into a third kindergarten classroom. Auburn is not cutting or moving preschool classes. “We’re trying to hold onto that, but it’s hard,” Morrill said.
Kindergarten teacher Barbara Boulet said she has 17 and 18 students in her classes. “Smaller is always better,” she said. Eighteen makes it difficult to get time with each child, she said.
Other Auburn elementary schools are also teeming. “All our schools are filled to capacity,” Morrill said.
Fairview Elementary had 500 students for years, now it’s enrollment is 540. Walton Elementary’s student population has climbed from 212 to 279 in the last six years. “We’re out of rooms and out of space,” Morrill said.
Systemwide, Auburn is accommodating higher numbers by juggling students, looking for classes with available space, and moving students there, Morrill said. Administrators “work carefully through the summer looking at new enrollments. If they have high numbers in some grades, they’ll contact other schools to see if they have lower enrollments.”
More students is a good problem, educators say.
Many districts in Maine, especially those in rural, northern areas, are suffering dramatic reductions in student numbers. That leads to less money, bigger budget cuts and some school closings, a blow to those communities.
Higher numbers “is a healthy trend,” Morrill said. “It shows vitality with young children coming into the system.”
K-12 student enrollment
2006 — Lewiston, 4,701; Auburn, 3,478; state, 197,867.
2007 — Lewiston, 4,803; Auburn, 3,563; state, 194,232.
2008 — Lewiston, 4,768; Auburn, 3,590; state, 190,644.
2009 — Lewiston, 4,952; Auburn, 3,569; state, 188,712.
2010 — Lewiston, 4,958; Auburn, 3,609; state, 186,673.
Source: Maine Department of Education, Oct. 1. Enrollment numbers include prekindergarten students. Student growth in the primary grades was larger than higher grades.