scene truck 4.JPG

Ava Mata, 4 and Ayden Mata, 6, of Amite, inside a school bus.

Louisiana's top-rated school districts also showed some of the largest enrollment gains in the past decade, according to newly-released headcounts.

The list includes the Central School District, up 30 percent since 2008; Zachary, up 25 percent; and the Ascension Parish school system, which rose by 18 percent.

Those school systems are rated fifth, first and second, respectively, in annual school performance scores released in November.

The Jefferson Parish School District remains the largest in the state with 48,912 students — up 24 percent.

The East Baton Rouge school system is still No. 2 in Louisiana despite losing 8 percent of its students in the past decade.

Enrollment totals 41,041 students, according to the Oct. 1 snapshot compiled by the state Department of Education.

Public schools in Caddo Parish, which includes Shreveport, are No. 3 statewide but soon may be overtaken by the fast-growing St. Tammany Parish School District.

St. Tammany's enrollment totals 38,542 students, up 7 percent and just 56 students behind fast-declining Caddo.

Population growth in St. Tammany — roughly 30 percent since 2000 — accounts for some of the rise in its student count.

Enrollment is often but not always a sign of a thriving school district.

Six of Louisiana's top-10 rated districts showed enrollment gains in the past decade, including the Central, Zachary, Ascension, Vermilion, Plaquemines and DeSoto school districts.

But the Lafourche School District, rated No. 3 for student performance, fell 18 percent in its student count in the past decade, to 14,532 students.

The West Feliciana Parish school system, rated seventh in the state, was almost static during the period. Enrollment totals 2,291 students, 35 fewer students than the district had in 2008.

The student count at Baker, one of the state's lowest-performing districts, is down 28 percent — 1,321 students.

The other two districts in the Top 10 academically that lost students are the Vernon and Lincoln school systems.

Statewide enrollment rose 4 percent since 2008, to 719,215.

Superintendents often cringe when classrooms grow thinner because state aid is based in part on headcount.

Losing a student in the current school year costs districts $3,961 per child through Louisiana's funding formula.

Public schools in Central showed a 30 percent enrollment gain over the past decade despite temporary drops triggered by the historic flooding two years ago.

"We were on sort of a steady trend, and when we had the flood in 2016 our numbers dipped," said Jason Fountain, superintendent of the district.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

Some students were displaced. Others relocated. But the district reached its highest enrollment with the Oct. 1 snapshot.

"The school system is just part of the ecosystem of the community," Fountain said. "This is a growing community."

Demand for classrooms has been evident since Central broke away from the East Baton Rouge Parish School District in 2007.

Mike Faulk, former superintendent, said initial projections called for about 2,600 students to enroll when the doors first opened 11 years ago. Instead, 3,000 students signed up that August, he said.

Several large districts have shown solid gains since 2008.

That list includes the Lafayette Parish school system, 31, 356 students, up 5 percent; Livingston, 25,855 students, up 18 percent; and Ascension, 22,862, up 18 percent.

Zachary has been the top-scoring district in Louisiana for 14 consecutive years — every year it got a rating.

Less known is the fact it is a majority-minority school system. Minority students make up 56 percent of enrollment, which totals 5,586.

Zachary broke away from the East Baton Parish school system in 2003. During the first seven or eight years the district experienced huge enrollment gains, said Zachary Superintendent Scott Devillier.

"Over the past seven years, it has sort of leveled off," Devillier said. "We have small growth each year, about 100 kids each year."

The East Baton Rouge Parish School District has lost students for a variety of reasons, including low-performing schools being taken over by the state.

During a two-year period starting in 2009, 1,500 students were moved into the state-run Recovery School District when Dalton and Lanier elementary schools and Crestworth and Kenilworth middle schools were absorbed by the state.

Conversely, enrollment has risen by more than 1,100 students since last year when four charter schools opened -- BASIS Baton Rouge, The Emerge School, IDEA Bridge and IDEA Innovation.

Enrollment can skyrocket for reasons that have little to do with academics.

The St. Bernard Parish School District is 67 percent bigger than it was in 2008 -- 7,816 students.

Hurricane Katrina leveled every school building in the district in 2005.

"Eleven weeks after the storm I opened a trailer in the parking lot at Chalmette High and the first day I had 334 kids," said Doris Voitier, superintendent since 2004.

Lots of students moved in from New Orleans, remaking the district demographically.

More than 80 percent of St. Bernard students live in low-income homes.

However, the district earned a "B" on its latest state-issued report card.

According to one rating system, St. Bernard is the top-performing district in the state when poverty is factored in.

Some information for this report was provided by Advocate reporter Charles Lussier

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.