School population, funding falls on Kenai Peninsula

Posted: Monday, May 06, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Next school year, Kenai Middle School's art program will be axed, along with reading and math tutoring. Kids will have a harder time getting into electives such as drama and home economics, and class sizes will grown.

Until now, said principal Paul Sorenson, he could cobble together enough money to keep the programs humming, but a drop in state funding brought on by lower enrollment now leaves him helpless.

''This time around, I'm not going to be able to hide those cuts,'' he said. ''They're going to feel them from class offering to class size. These are going to be felt.''

Schools throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough face shrinking enrollments in elementary grades even as the peninsula's older adult population is growing.

''We've lost almost 700 students in the last four years, primarily in the early grades,'' said district Superintendent Donna Peterson.

District officials project that 9,725 students will attend district schools next year, down from a high of 10,384 in 1997. Between fewer students and an end to a federal grant to reduce class sizes, the district expects to lose 26 teaching positions.

The decline in numbers of kids and a corresponding drop in teachers started five years ago and could continue another five to 10 years, demographers say.

District officials worry that a limited job market for young professionals is driving down enrollment. Also, roughly 600 students from kindergarten to 12th grade are being home schooled, a number that has remained steady over the past couple of years.

But what is happening on the Peninsula mirrors a trend seen elsewhere in Alaska and nationwide.

''We've gotten older,'' said Neal Fried, a state labor economist.

The district is experiencing a painful ebb in the tide of kids generated by the baby boom, the post-World War II generation born in the 1950s, said Greg Williams, the state's demographer.

''I think the primary driver here is this generational pattern and its ripples,'' he said.

Baby boomers, in their 40s and 50s, make up a high percentage of the area's population, and the generation in its 20s and 30s is simply smaller, he said.

The ripples show up in census figures and district enrollment numbers. The number of Kenai Peninsula residents age 45-60 more than doubled in the past 10 years, according to the U.S. census. And there is a corresponding boost in the number of kids -- the children of those adults -- in the region's junior high schools.

Meanwhile, people in the Peninsula's 25-34 age range shrank by 23 percent, from 7,350 to 5,650, in the past decade.

The pattern may be more exaggerated on the Kenai Peninsula because of economic trends, Fried said. A wave of footloose baby boomers immigrated to Alaska in the 1970s as the U.S. economy sagged and work on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline boomed. Now there are fewer young people nationwide and a robust Lower 48 economy to boot, he said.

''It's not that more younger people have left (the state); it's that fewer of them have moved here,'' Fried said.

Williams said the trend toward fewer children should continue another five to 10 years.

''The only time I see (school enrollment) booming again is when today's junior high-age kids start raising their own kids,'' he said. ''Its a ripple effect.''

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