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SALT LAKE CITY — Public school enrollment swelled to more than 600,000 in 2012, including high percentage gains for both charter schools and minority students, according to data released Friday by the Utah State Office of Education.
The numbers represent 2.2 percent growth over 2011, said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the state office of education. There are now 600,985 students enrolled in Utah public schools.
Peterson said the growth is slightly higher than officials' expectations. He also said the increase indicates the state is returning to historical levels after year-to-year growth slowed during the economic recession.
"We're now coming back up," he said, "and we anticipate accelerating."
Charter schools now account for 8 percent of Utah's public school enrollment, exceeding 50,000 students for the first time after a 13.2 percent jump in enrollment over 2011.
Peterson said the number of Utah's students in charter schools, which are independently managed but receive public funding, is expected to grow in 2013 with the opening of eight new charters with a combined capacity of 3,800 students.
Minority students saw a smaller percentage gain than their charter school counterparts but continued to outpace the state's overall trend. The number of minority students jumped by 5.6 percent over 2011, or more than 7,000 students.
Utah's 137,647 minority students now account for 23 percent of the state's public education population.
"Utah is growing more diverse and is growing to better reflect the U.S. population as a whole," Peterson said.
The growth presents a number of challenges for the state and school districts. Beyond per-pupil funding, which is a perennial topic in Utah politics, the diversification and expansion of the state's student population creates questions about student performance, school capacity and teacher training.
The data also reflects an increase in the number of economically disadvantaged students, who now account for 36.6 percent of Utah's total public school population, Peterson said.
Alpine School District retained its position as the largest district in the state with 70,811 students, according to the data. Davis School District secured the second spot with 68,342 students, pulling ahead of the 67,600-student Jordan School District that was effectively tied with Davis in 2011.
Daggett School District, which is based in Manila, is the state's smallest district with 181 students.