Report predicts Lewiston enrollment growth will slow

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LEWISTON — A study released Monday predicts Lewiston’s student population  will continue to grow but slower than the current rate.

For the past several years, Lewiston has added between 75 and 100 students each year. The six elementary schools are overcrowded.

The study, which will be discussed at a Tuesday meeting, projects the current enrollment of 5,277 students will grow to 5,447 students in 2018, the year Lewiston plans to open a new school to replace Martel Elementary School.

Enrollment will peak at 5,523 students in 2021 and decrease to 5,454 in 2024, according to the New England School Development Council study.

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The 2024 enrollment would be 822 students more than 2004, when it was 4,632.

The projections are important because the Lewiston School Department Redistricting Committee is debating how big a school to build to replace the aging Martel Elementary on Lisbon Street.

The committee will take up the enrollment projections when it meets at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 16, at the downtown Dingley Building.

The committee is considering building a school that would house 1,200 to 1,300 students, making it the largest elementary school in Maine.

The bigger school came up after the Maine Department of Education recommended Lewiston consider building a larger facility to take care of existing overcrowding. Another advantage is that the state would pay 95 percent of the costs for one new school, but if Lewiston builds a smaller school and then has to build or renovate a second school, the second project would have to be paid by Lewiston taxpayers.

The committee has said it doesn’t want the new school to be overcrowded on the day it opens, as was the case in the last two Lewiston built, Geiger and Farwell elementary schools.

Now many lower-grade classes have too many students. One larger school could take care of replacing Martel and Longley elementary schools and ease overcrowding in other schools.

But lower-than-expected student growth, as projected in the just-released study, could mean the new school won’t be as big as 1,200 or 1,300. The redistricting committee will make its recommendations in January.

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said Monday that the projection shows enrollment peaking and leveling off over the next 10 years. He said he challenged NESDEC on the numbers, “but they are comfortable with their forecast. We should have a very good discussion Tuesday,” he said.

Webster said he also challenged NESDEC because committee members may have difficulty accepting the future enrollment numbers without more understanding of how NESDEC arrived at those figures.

The report shows that births in the city peaked at more than 550 in 2007 and 2008, and were at 550 from 2009 to 2011. However, births fell to around 500 in 2012. The report projects that from 2014 to 2019, between 521 to 533 babies would be born each year in Lewiston.

The study shows that the the percentage of minority students shot up from 2 percent in 2000 to 25 percent now.

Today, 75 percent of students have English as their first language, 21 percent are Somali and the remaining 4 percent represent a mix of languages, including Arabic, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese and Swahili.

Factors affecting Lewiston student enrollment include an improved economy and job growth, according to the report.

The in-migration of new families appears to have lessened considerably, the report said. “Whether it resumes at the pace of the past decade will be influenced by many complex factors, including international politics and the global economy.”

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