October 10, 2008

Student Numbers on the Wane

By Chaney, Rob

How do we count schoolchildren? Let us count the ways. Because there are many.

By the most basic, heads-in-the-classroom approach, Missoula County Public Schools dropped 257 students between last fall and this fall. That's the equivalent of Franklin Elementary School or the entire Big Sky High School sophomore class going absent and unexcused.

But a school district's official population for funding purposes uses a different tabulation. It calculates the "average number belonging" for the year by combining enrollments in October and February.

The October number gives families time to get settled and enrolled or withdrawn, after the in-and-out confusion of the first couple weeks of school. And the February number accounts for attrition or other changes over the year. By that count, MCPS is down around 148 kids compared to 2007-08.

Per-student funding is actually based on a three-year average of those figures. That sands off any jumps or dips, allowing school districts a more stable arithmetic to calculate budgets year to year. So if this year's preliminary 3 percent enrollment drop holds true for the next nine months, it could mean less money for MCPS programs in 2009-10.

Federal No Child Left Behind rules add yet another calculation. All public schools must test at least 95 percent of their testing- age students every March. That figure comes from a snapshot head count done shortly before the testing period, and can be different from either the beginning- or end-of-year number.

Then there's the long-term approach. MCPS figures dating back to 1997 show a steady decline in student numbers in all grades, although the K-5 buildings have been fairly stable since 2002. School districts face two challenges when their numbers shift. It affects classrooms immediately, with more elbow room and better student-teacher ratios. But it also puts district leadership on notice that tough choices may be on the horizon.

In the short term, MCPS faces a slight bulge in its kindergarten enrollment. It's had to move one teacher over to Lowell Elementary to absorb the load, and is breathing a sigh of relief that several newly constructed kindergarten classrooms are getting immediate use.

But longer term, after years of dominance, Big Sky High School is now the smallest of the city's three urban secondary schools. Some of that shift is due to a deliberate effort - moving Lolo students to Sentinel High School instead of Big Sky. But Big Sky's 131- student drop this fall may also reflect the graduation of a larger- than-normal Class of 2007 last spring.

"The high school district is much more than just our K-8 population," said MCPS spokeswoman Lesli Brassfield. "You've got to look at all the K-8 schools that feed into our district. What's happening to those populations?"

That's a good question, and the answer is murky. Hellgate Elementary School District, on Missoula 's western edge, enjoyed a boost of nearly 50 students this fall over last to 1,295 K-8 students. But Frenchtown School District, which has the other major high school in Missoula County, grew barely 15 students in the same period, to 1,247 K-12 kids.

"We haven't grown a lot the last couple years," Frenchtown Superintendent Randy Cline said. "We're seeing a lot of proposed new construction, but there are a lot of houses out here for sale. I don't know if a lot of these projects are going forward."

Private schools in Missoula don't appear to have benefited from MCPS' decline either. The Catholic St. Joseph's Elementary School and Loyola Sacred Heart High School are up a combined 16 students to 528 in K-12. Valley Christian Schools' K-12 program is down about 40 students to 262. Sussex School's K-8 program held steady at 89. And Missoula International School's preschool to eighth-grade program has seen a slight increase to 128 full-time students.

And the Seeley-Swan area is seeing a decline. Seeley Lake Elementary School grew by two to 180 students, but Swan Lake Elementary dropped five to 140 in its K-8 pdrgram. And Seeley-Swan High School declined by 28 students to an enrollment of 108, raising questions about how long it can continue to be a stand-alone high school.

MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle has called for new demographic research on Missoula County's youth population to give guidance to school planning. He's counting on it.

Copyright The Missoulian Sep 14, 2008

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