Community Perspective: K-12 Student Growth is not Stopping Anytime Soon

A contributed perspectives piece by Joe Fitzgerald

Correlation isn’t causation. That’s what people will tell you when they’re trying to deny or soft-pedal the relationship between two numbers twined together like snakes on a caduceus. What they should say is that correlation isn’t always causation, but more often than not it’s a good starting point. 

With that in mind, there’s a strong correlation, 0.88 on a scale of 1, between off-campus beds of college student housing and the number of K-12 students in Harrisonburg City Public Schools. That 0.88 correlation is for the 20 years 2003-22. In non-math terms, stack the two numbers next to each other and ask the spreadsheet if they grow together. They do.

The number of beds takes some work. Mostly it comes from three sources: a list of apartment complexes at JMU’s off-campus housing site; quadrennial studies of the city’s housing from the Harrisonburg Redevelopment Housing Authority; and Scott Rogers’s invaluable Harrisonburg Housing Today website. The number of K-12 students comes from the school system’s fall census.

It’s not a tough path to figure out. JMU students’ average family incomes are in the low end of the top quarter. Those who can choose the newest complexes with the most amenities. It doesn’t happen immediately. A student who’s rented at Complex A for two years will probably stay there for their final year, particularly if they keep the same roommates. Freshmen leaving after their first year will go to Complex B, with its bigger pool and fiber-optic internet, so it will probably be a year or two before Complex A starts marketing to young families.

If you account for those delays and build a four-year lag into the spreadsheet, comparing college student beds 2000-2018 with K-12 student bodies 2004-2022, the correlation goes up to 0.97. A correlation doesn’t get much higher unless you’re comparing the DNA of twins. 

A professional mathematician suggested to me recently that there may be another factor driving both variables, but I don’t know what it would be. Neither JMU growth nor city growth match the way those variables do. Accept the correlation and its explanation and take the calculation a step further. Three beds of student housing equates to one new HCPS student. 

When Rocktown High School opens, we’ll have opened five new schools in 20 years, in addition to replacing Harrisonburg High School. That won’t stop while new students are still coming. 

A draft student generation model was prepared last summer by an HCPS data analyst. It calculated the number of students at the elementary, middle, and secondary level for each type of housing, detached, attached, and multi-family. Applying that model to the proposed Bluestone Town Center creates a projection of 322 new students, but without accounting for the number of senior homes or what demographic the housing draws. 

Two complexes by the Port Republic Road Food Lion, one approved, one on the table, would add up to 1,080 student beds. If the three-to-one ratio holds, that’s 360 new K-12 students in a few years. Add that to the 322 potential from Bluestone Town Center, and we’re building another new school for 682 or so students.

The School Board is already looking closely at those numbers, and other city officials need to follow suit. People haven’t stopped moving into Harrisonburg and there’s no sign they will anytime soon. Doomsayers speak of everybody moving to the county because of tax rates, but homes stay on the market on average less than a week. Some other everybody is moving in. It may already be time to buy land for the next school and raise teacher salaries so we can staff it. 

Or we can shrug and say that correlation isn’t causation. But something caused 2,500 K-12 students to come here in the last 20 years, and they’re still coming. 

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg and a former city editor at the DNR. He studied numerical analysis at Virginia State University and Virginia Commonwealth University. He is married to School Board Chair Deb Fitzgerald.

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