Public school enrollment is up this year, but not as much as educators had expected or hoped.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Friday finished its official count period and began adding up the numbers. Preliminary figures showed 9,963 students from preschool through grade 12.
That is up 70 from last year, but about 150 short of projections.
The Anchorage and Matanuska school districts also report small enrollment increases.
The numbers are vital. They determine school funding levels; they sometimes require painful midyear staff changes; and they provide clues to changes in the peninsula economy.
The increase is the first for the district in four years, stemming an unprecedented decline that began in 1997. That decline continues in most borough schools.
"The vast majority of those kids have moved out of state. We tracked them," said Sterling Elementary School Principal Paul Kubena.
His school showed one of the largest decreases, down about 40 children from last year.
School by school and grade by grade, the new enrollment numbers show striking trends.
Fewer kindergartners are entering school than there are seniors graduating. Primary enrollment remains weak this year, but it is above the district's projections.
Assistant Superintendent Patrick Hickey pointed out that kindergarten is still the district's smallest grade.
"That would not be so alarming by itself because kindergarten remains optional," he said. "But the second smallest is first grade. And second grade is the next smallest after that."
Enrollment also exceeds expectations in the alternative schools: Kenai Alternative High School, Homer Flex School, Aurora Borealis Charter School and the Connections cyber school. The district added a new program, not included in last year's projections, now serving 31 inmates at the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward.
Connections, in its second year, now has 462 enrolled, making it one of the district's largest "schools."
Hickey noted the strong appeal of alternative schooling to peninsula families and admitted that Connections is competing with Interior Distance Education of Alaska, the home and school partnership run through the Galena school district.
The district predicts Connections will continue to grow.
"The interesting thing is, with this growth, we still had 618 students on the Galena list," Hickey wrote in a memo Monday to the school board.
"It appears that while Connections is extremely successful, we are not impacting the Galena enrollments significantly at this point. We do seem to have stemmed their growth."
Hickey expressed concern that having 600 students enrolled elsewhere is a drain on the cash-strapped district. While he supports families' rights to choose whatever program they prefer, he wants them to be aware that enrolling elsewhere removes state funding from the peninsula economy, he said.
"We need to undertake a better marketing strategy to make people understand their choice may have unintended consequences," he said.
However, despite the alternative school increases, the district is missing about 200 students in grades 10 through 12.
"I was just dumbfounded," Soldotna High School Principal Sylvia Reynolds said of this fall's attendance.
The enrollment of about 540 students is the lowest she has ever seen at the school. The projection had been for 35 more students than last year, but the school ended up with 16 less.
The school traditionally has had a stable enrollment with few transient families, she said.
"Until this year. Holy smokes," she said.
She had a secretary check on the missing students.
"The majority of our kids are in California, North Dakota and Minnesota," she said. "They are not here."
The school lost a full-time technology support position in October because of the shortfall.
Other peninsula schools reporting decreases of 20 or more compared to last year are: Nikiski Middle-Senior High, Soldotna Elementary, Tustumena Elementary in Kasilof, Seward Elementary and Chapman Elementary in Anchor Point.
Kubena, like Reynolds, reported more families moving out than moving in. Many parents told him in the spring that their children would not be coming back in the fall. He attributed most of the exodus to economic factors.
"The jobs weren't here," he said. "They were simply being offered better job opportunities Outside, so they were packing up and leaving."
Hickey's office has developed projections based on class sizes and community trends. The patterns suggest that enrollment will increase a bit again next year, then decline.
The largest groups of students now in the district are in grades seven through 10, reflecting what demographers have called the "baby boom echo."
In Alaska, there are fewer families with young children than there were a decade ago, so fewer children are entering schools to replace the bigger classes when they graduate over the next five years.
Educators are watching enrollment trends closely, because state and borough funding are based on student numbers.
Hickey said he will report next week on the financial implications of the lower enrollment after the district finishes is report to the state on average enrollments.
However, Kubena said there is a silver lining in the form of smaller class sizes.
"We've been able to give more attention to the individual child," he said.
"Change is inevitable. We're electing to put a positive spin on it."
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