WASHINGTON (AP) - The District of Columbia is seeing a boom in its population of children younger than 5, prompting local education experts to question whether the city's schools can handle the growth.
The district had 33,348 children under 5 in 2011, according to census figures, accounting for more than a quarter of the city's 94,429 youths age 19 and younger.
The increase has been driven by an influx of adults younger than 35 to the District over the last 10 years, said Peter Tatian, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. With drops in crime in the city and housing prices in the suburbs soaring, many of these young adults have decided to raise their families in the district.
But keeping them in the city requires the schools, which currently enroll 80,230 in traditional public schools and charter schools, to keep up.
"There's a lot of young families, and if we offer them high-quality schools, many of them will stay," said DC Public Charter School Board Executive Director Scott Pearson. "If we don't offer them high-quality schools, we think they will leave."
The largest group - 20,157, or 60.4 percent - of the District's children under age 5 are younger than 3, indicating that the city's schools are just beginning to see the population growth affect their enrollment as the children enter prekindergarten and kindergarten.
The city is expected to add an average 2,850 children ages 5 to 17 per year until 2017, a growth of 20.5 percent, and an average 4,810 children per year for each of the following five years, a growth of 28.7 percent, according to a recent report by Mayor Vincent Gray's office.
Some D.C. Public Schools have begun adding prekindergarten seats for next year. For example, Garrison Elementary - which was on Chancellor Kaya Henderson's initial list of under-enrolled schools slated to close but was saved in January - expects to fill one more class, bringing the Ward 2 school to five prekindergarten classes, said Principal Collin Hill.
The report forecasts a more than 200-seat deficit at schools in one-third of D.C. neighborhoods. Other neighborhoods likely will continue to have empty seats despite the growth, the mayor's report said, partly because the traditional public schools and charter schools have planned campuses independently of each other.
The Public Charter School Board plans to start advertising to prospective charter school operators where the city needs new schools to accommodate population growth, Pearson said.
"We don't want to tell a charter, 'You can't go here,' or 'You can go here,' because charters are citywide schools of choice," he said, "but we do think we should take into account where the need for schools is greatest."
DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said the school system is working with the D.C. Office of Planning to incorporate population growth in decisions regarding future school openings and closings.
The biggest challenge is going to be making sure the district offers high-quality schools from the early years through 12th grade, said David Pickens, executive director of DC School Reform Now. He emphasized a need for more high-quality middle schools, especially among traditional public schools.
Given the small number of children the district has compared with other urban areas, making sure every student has a seat at a quality school should be manageable, said Gwen Rubinstein, deputy director of DC Action for Children, which plans to release a report on the issue in coming weeks.
"The city's future depends on us getting this right," she said, "and we can and we should."