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Brockton reviews space needs after surge in K-8 pupils

The number of young students in Brockton has grown so much over the past decade, partly driven by immigration, that the city has reopened a shuttered school building to accommodate them.

Since 2011, Brockton experienced a surge of about 600 new K-8 students, bringing the total to 12,073, with 75 percent of the new students in the K-5 level, said Jocelyn Meek, spokeswoman for the department.

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To handle the influx, school officials reopened the Barrett Russell School, which was closed as a cost-cutting measure in 2009, to house approximately 300 kindergarten students and make room in the other elementary schools for new students.

Much of the student growth is a result of the long-established immigration pipeline between Cape Verde and the city, and, to a lesser extent, from Haiti. And lately, administrators have noticed a new wave of students from indigenous rural areas of Central and South America.

“Anyone who works in a gateway city will say it’s difficult to predict population increases,” Meek said.

“Just going to Brockton City Hall and getting the number of kids born in 2009 doesn’t help us, because students come from overseas.”Student enrollment in Brockton, currently at 17,011, has steadily increased at a rate of approximately 4 percent a year for the past decade, cementing it as the fourth-largest district in the state and the largest among communities south of Boston.

As class sizes increase, Superintendent Kathleen A. Smith has begun the process of convening a group to look into creating a long-term facilities master plan that would assess the existing stock and the need for new school buildings over the next 20 years, Meek said.

‘The tendency has been for us to gain more students than we lose. [The schools] are not over capacity, but close to capacity or at capacity.’

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“Many of our schools were built in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s,” Meek said. The master plan would determine whether “the space can be better utilized — will we need to build new schools down the road? It’s high on [Smith’s] list of priorities. She wants to have a plan for the future for the city as our population continues to grow and change.”

The Manthala George Jr. Elementary School, which opened in 2009, is the newest school building in the district, and is one of five facilities built since 1998. Brockton has 24 school buildings and no pending projects on the state’s School Building Authority wait list, Meek said.

“The tendency has been for us to gain more students than we lose,” said Salvatore Terrasi, executive director of pupil personnel services. “[The schools] are not over capacity, but close to capacity or at capacity.”

Most of those students are at the primary grade level. A decade ago, there were 16,471 students enrolled in Brockton schools, with nearly 5,000 of them at the K-3 level, according to state education data. The K-3 enrollment jumped just over 12 percent in 10 years to its current level of 5,614.

“Not only are we seeing a population increase, which we attribute to the economy, but for some reason it’s all at the very young grades,” Meek said. “We’re not seeing that increase in middle and high school. Maybe it’s because younger families are leaving countries that are not seeing economic viability.”

Most of the student increase comes from the city’s Cape Verdean community, which continues to foster a strong migration wave from the archipelago in Western Africa. But the district has also retained some of the roughly 180 Haitian students from the group that came to the city as a result of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that decimated much of the capital region in 2010, Meek said. At the time, Haitian students suddenly accounted for 38 percent of the new arrivals in the district’s K-8 student population, she said.

With about 80 percent of the school department’s budget coming from state aid, an unexpected surge in student enrollment can strain resources, Terrasi said. The 180 Haitian students, for example, represent about $2 million in state aid, he said, adding that state reimbursement for new students is not issued to districts until the year after the students arrive.

While Haitian migration into Brockton has leveled off, Meek said officials have noticed a small but steady increase in students from South America, particularly indigenous rural regions of Ecuador and Peru where the language is Quechua, a Spanish-derived dialect that can be hard for outsiders to understand. She said the district has about 200 Quechua-speaking students.

Milford is known to have a sizable number of Quechua-speaking people from Ecuador, many of whom have arrived illegally and taken construction jobs, said Frank Geoffrion, a Spanish and Quechua interpreter for Massachusetts and federal courts. He said the population may be spreading to Brockton because of the many services geared toward immigrant groups and due to availability of public transit.

“Some of the people in Milford are moving out. They’re moving to Brockton, Connecticut, or New York,” he said. “I would imagine finding employment is the main impetus.”

Marjean Perhot, director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities in Boston, said the organization has seen an increase of young children coming from South and Central America since late 2011, including members of indigenous populations in Ecuador, due to a rise in gang- and drug-related violence in those countries.

“As of late the real push factor is a combination of poor economy, lack of basic education, lack of basic living situation, and an increase of gang and drug violence,” Perhot said. “That really drives the migration. Some of the children do have families, relatives, or close friends of the families here and say, ‘I’m going to go stay with them. I’m going to get out and come to the US and get an education and not deal with these gangs.’ The gangs are very vicious.

Christopher Cooney, president and chief executive officer at the Metro South Chamber of Commerce, said immigrant families grow and thrive in Brockton, a gateway city with myriad resources, including below-market rate housing, public transportation, and English classes.

“This is just the next wave of immigration,” Cooney said. “People want to stay in the city. . . . I think the word’s out; if you’re a person of color and you come to Brockton you’re going to feel very at home. Seventy percent of our school population are people of color.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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