On the first day of school, Thunder Mountain High School vice principal Rhonda Hickok went around the school to count how many students were there.
“I think we were at 719 that were actually here, and that blew us away. I wasn’t expecting that number,” she said.
The projected enrollment for TMHS was 653. Into its second week of school, that first day figure has grown even higher to around 732. That’s about 80 more students than the Mendenhall Valley high school was prepared for.
“We are bursting at the seams in the classroom,” Hickok said. Some classes have 35 students. Last year, she said classroom numbers were between 28 and 32.
“It’s just an anomaly year. It’s really odd,” she said. “We have not seen the dip in the student body that we thought we’d see.”
Throughout the Juneau School District, many schools are seeing unexpected higher enrollment numbers and that often entails last minute adjustments. The total district enrollment was projected at 4,597, lower than last year’s. As of Thursday, it was at 4,808 — a difference of more than 210 students.
“In general, we definitely benefit from having more students in our schools and we’re happy that students are choosing public schools to attend. It helps with the budget because we do receive funding based on enrollment,” the district’s chief of staff Kristin Bartlett said.
“But when we get this information so close to the beginning of the school year, it does cause a little bit of scrambling to make sure that everyone is accommodated.”
Why more students now?
Student enrollment has been trending downward since 2005, according to an enrollment forecast report written last December by Gregg Erickson of Erickson & Associates.
“Until recently that was mostly the result of declining birth rates. Since 2012, however, the declines reflect a shrinking Juneau economy,” the report said.
Last year’s enrollment was 4,724. The year before it was 4,792. For those years, head of the school district’s finances David Means, with the aid of Erickson’s report, had been pretty accurate with his enrollment projections.
“It was uncanny how right on he was. The last two years, we have hit our projections within five kids. It was almost like someone was psychic,” superintendent Mark Miller said. “To come in with this many more students is surprising based on my experience with the past track record here in Juneau.”
“I don’t know why we have more students than we expected,” Means said. “I don’t have an explanation that I can really say. Anecdotally, but it’s based on a very small sample size, perhaps the Coast Guard brought in more families this time around during the summer transition, but it’s the only thing I know about.”
Bartlett said it seems like a number of families has moved into the community.
“So that’s good for our community and good for school enrollment. Also, sometimes it has to do with choice — families who may’ve been homeschooling might be enrolling their students in the public school,” she said.
As TMHS enrolls more and more students, Hickok said, “we’ve had students come in from North Carolina, Idaho, Hoonah. They’re coming from all over the place for various reasons. Their parents are all employed somewhere. It’s really interesting.”
Erickson said it’s nice to get projections correct “just like we nailed it last year, but these are human decisions and human institutions — where you move to, where you enroll your children and there aren’t any really good scientific ways of predicting exactly how that’s going to unravel.”
What does it mean for the budget?
Other schools that are seeing higher than projected enrollment include Auke Bay Elementary School, which is seeing about 50 students above projected enrollment, and Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, which is seeing about 35 students above projected enrollment.
“At Auke Bay, they’re using every square inch of that school now. They’re making it, but it is tight over there, there’s no two ways about that. I think (other schools have) enough breathing room to make it work without it being a big deal,” superintendent Miller said.
Schools that are seeing fewer students than what was projected include Floyd Dryden Middle School and Harborview Elementary School. Floyd Dryden was projected at 459 students but has around 443. Harborview’s enrollment was expected to be 309 but is actually around 294. The differences are in the teens, which Means doesn’t consider significant.
The overall increase though is likely to mean more money from the state for the district’s budget, potentially up to $1.5 million more, Means said.
“With this amount of students, we’re going to be able to overcome Gov. Walker’s partial veto of school foundation funding. That was about $200,000. We will overcome that,” he said. “Also, because we have additional students, we’ve hired three additional teachers. Two are at Auke Bay and then the rest of them are in fractions here and there.”
But that’s based on the assumption that the district’s estimate of having 74 intensive need students is correct.
“Each student in that criteria is equivalent to about 13 students. If we had a few students less than (74), that could impact our financials quite a bit,” Means said.
“Literally, if we end up with 10 less intensive need kids than we thought we have, all that money is gone. Every dollar that we got from more (Base Student Allocation) would be eaten up,” Miller explained further.
He said a factor like that changes the bottom line very quickly.
“It’s a very fine line. There are a lot of subtleties about not only how many students but what type of students and what the needs of those students are that come into play before you can start breathing easy and moving forward,” he said. “We really don’t fully reconcile the budget and know for sure until about a quarter of the way through the school year, about October.”
That’s when Alaska school districts turn in final numbers to the state. Means said he doesn’t think enrollment will stay as high as it is now, but it will remain higher than projected.
“We will have 160 to 200 more students than what we thought we’d have,” Means said.
What are other impacts?
Besides affecting the budget and classroom sizes, higher enrollment means a plethora of other adjustments that need to be made.
“There’s an impact potentially to the bus service and how crowded the school buses are. In actual classrooms, there are basic things like the number of desks or the number of sinks available in a science lab, the number of coat hooks in elementary schools for kids to hang their coats on. These are all things that do factor into the changes that have to made at the last minute when we have more students than expected,” the district’s chief of staff Bartlett said.
TMHS vice principal Rhonda Hickok said while adjusting class schedules has been frustrating, she appreciates the positive attitude toward the changes.
“Our kids and parents and staff are just phenomenal with their patience with this,” she said. “Just give us a little bit of time to figure out how we still continue to try to balance classes out. It’s just a challenging year, but with challenge and change comes opportunity. One never knows where growth can happen. Maybe it happens in a class of 35.”
• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or email@example.com.
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