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‘It’s overwhelming’: Pender Co. school enrollment exceeds state estimates by hundreds of students

Published: Sep. 13, 2021 at 6:11 PM EDT
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TOPSAIL BEACH, N.C. (WECT) - They say growth is a good problem to have, but the expansion in Pender County recently has administrators like Topsail Elementary principal Melissa Wilson scrambling.

Hundreds more students enrolled in Pender County Schools than the state estimated.

The state projected the district would welcome 9,722 K-12 students, but weeks into the school year, district leaders confirm 10,144 K-12 students are enrolled, as well as approximately 250 Pre-K students.

The 2021-2022 school year is also the first year schools must follow new state rules shrinking K-3 class sizes from 21 students to 16, 17, and 18 students.

The region’s rapid development, paired with the new state mandate, is stretching schools to their limit, requiring more teachers and more classrooms than ever before.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” said principal Melissa Wilson. “I’m still using every module unit, every classroom, every office space — spaces that weren’t traditional classroom spaces — we turned them into classroom spaces, so we’re still literally busting at the seams.”

Topsail Elementary can’t fit any more mobile classrooms outside, so this year the entire 5th grade class was moved to the middle school to make more space at the elementary school.

They’re not the only ones struggling with space either; the district’s newest schools, Surf City and Penderlea, that are heading into their 4th year, are already feeling the pinch.

“Penderlea, Surf City — they are already pushing, if not at capacity, maybe even a little bit over, so yeah, we’re seeing significant growth throughout our district. It’s just a popular place to be right now,” said Pender County Schools spokesperson Alex Riley.

The district plans to request more teachers from the state in the coming weeks. Leaders can also request state waivers for surpassing the class size limits for K-3 students; however, it will take a bit longer to tackle the space issue.

“We just got done with a study that we’re gonna be putting out to the public here in a little bit, after we get a chance to sit down and talk with county commissioners about what things look like in terms of the needs that we’re gonna see in the next 10 to 15 years, and they’re high,” said Riley.

As the county continues to search for land to build a new school, administrators like Wilson are left to consider re-purposing music and art rooms into normal classrooms just to keep up while they wait.

“So, no matter what it looks like or what kind of classroom students are in, we will absolutely do everything we can to meet their needs and continue to support the growth happening in our community,” said Wilson.

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