Census totals of young, old rise in Arizona
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 10, 2005
Jon Kamman

When you think of Arizona, think both young and old, the Census Bureau is telling the nation today.

Estimates released overnight listed the state as having the nation's largest gain, although not a dramatic one, in the number of elementary-school-age children from mid-2003 to mid-2004.

In the same period, the estimated increase in the number of Arizonans 65 and older was fourth-highest in the nation. The group grew by about 16,600 people, equivalent to a city nearly the size of Florence.

About 732,000 Arizonans, or one in eight residents, are 65 or older.

Impact unclear

None of the statistics came as a surprise in a state that has ranked for years as second-fastest growing in the nation, behind Nevada.

But the overall impact of the changes was unclear because of conflicting data and a wide margin of possible error.

A leading demographer at Arizona State University found the figures on elementary-age children, ages 5 through 13, puzzling.

Only six states were shown as having increases in that age group, while nationally, the total declined by 1 percent.

That doesn't fit with the big picture, researcher Tom Rex said.

"The birth rates have remained fairly steady, although they dropped just a smidgen in the mid-1990s," Rex added. "It's surprising," he said of the national decline.

Further, Arizona's estimated increase of about 8,400 children in that age group in 2003-04 represented growth of only 1.1 percent for the year, a dramatic falloff from the average 2.9 percent over the previous three years.

"The estimates are pretty iffy," Rex cautioned.

Although based on a combination of surveys and analysis of birth records, school enrollment and other data, the figures aren't precise, especially for small age groups, he said.

Arizona Department of Education figures show a 1 percent gain in elementary enrollment from the 2002-03 to 2003-04 school years.

Districts at the edges of the Valley are beset by growth.

Crowded schools

The tiny Tolleson Elementary School District in the West Valley grew 11 percent in 2003-04 and has grown 28 percent so far this year.

The growth has required Sheely Farms Elementary School, at 94th Avenue and Encanto Boulevard, to turn its gym and computer lab into classrooms. The district will break ground on a new school soon.

Similarly, the Dysart Unified School District, with headquarters in El Mirage, has doubled in elementary enrollment since 2000 and is hard-pressed to accommodate its current 11,000 students.

"We continue to be surprised by how much we're growing," spokesman Timothy Tait said.

The district has built five elementary schools since 2000 and has two under construction and two in the design phase.

Some other districts have seen enrollment decline.

The Scottsdale Unified School District had 12,279 elementary students last school year, 70 fewer than the year before. Officials attribute the decline to a combination of more charter and private schools and skyrocketing home values, which shut some young families out of the Scottsdale housing market.

Growth in some areas results from higher birth rates among Hispanics, demographic studies confirm.

The trend has fueled the need for services targeting English-language learners, said Kenilworth Elementary School Principal Kenneth Baca.

"This presents some challenges, but it also presents opportunities," Baca said. "Challenges in raising the achievement levels of children who can struggle with English when it's not their main language and learning opportunities for teachers who have to raise their game to better educate this growing population of kids."

Reporters Mel Melendez, Anne Ryman and Louie Villalobos contributed to this article.