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Continued: In several metro-area school districts, more kids to count

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 3, 2012 - 12:05 AM

As school districts take their fall student tally, the state's top spot may be up for grabs.

Preliminary counts show that longtime No. 2 St. Paul added 210 students this year, the third straight year it has exceeded projections. Total enrollment is now 37,986.

Meanwhile, Anoka-Hennepin, for six years the state's largest district, isn't making its numbers public until a school board meeting later this month. But the district's 2012-13 projections from last winter came in at 36,861.

Across the metro area, preliminary reporting requirements indicate shifting figures for many districts. Minneapolis -- like St. Paul, long troubled by declining enrollments -- added 400 students. Meanwhile, suburban districts such as Lakeville and Elk River that once showed huge growth, along with their housing booms, have leveled off.

Of course, the gains and losses of K-12 enrollments follow many of the broader housing trends, but school officials and district number crunchers pointed to other factors, such as birth trends, their own marketing efforts and competition from nonpublic and charter schools.

In St. Paul, the gains aren't happenstance. Administrators went door to door over the summer to attract students and, last year, the district launched a privately funded marketing campaign.

"Somehow we're reaching families and getting them into the schools," said Steve Schellenberg, the district's assistant director of research, evaluation and assessment.

Statewide, officials expect enrollment to grow an average of 1 percent, said Carol Hokenson, manager in the division of school finance for the Minnesota Department of Education.

While state per-student funding is determined by another census taken in the spring, the fall numbers are used to determine state literacy aid, Q-Comp, federal special education allocations and other funding, Hokenson said.

"It's a first look at how the school enrollments are going," she said. "Whether you're declining or increasing, you have budget decisions to make and staffing levels to address."

Among the state's largest districts, gainers besides St. Paul included:

• Minneapolis, last year's third-largest district, also grew for a second year after a long decline, to 33,000 students. The demand for classrooms has been highest on the city's south side.

• South Washington County, the state's sixth-largest district, grew from 17,387 students last year to 17,591 this year.

• Rochester, the state's seventh-largest district, has seen its numbers climb again, from 16,443 last year and to 16,734 this year. It's the biggest year-to-year rise in five school years, district data shows.

The Minneapolis School Board is considering a 4 percent property tax hike, in part to create more space for students in a yet-to-be-defined construction program.

Minneapolis spokeswoman Rachel Hicks noted that more families are staying in Minneapolis and choosing to send children to city schools.

In South Washington County, spokeswoman Barbara Brown noted that Woodbury now has new residential developments in various stages of construction.

Three years ago, the district opened a new high school, East Ridge. Last school year, it purchased and expanded a leased building near an elementary school. This year, Liberty Ridge, is tops among district schools in enrollment increases -- even after about 20 students were moved because of potential crowding, Brown said.

The populations among other of the state's largest districts stayed flat or shrank.

After growing by as many as 500 students a year in the early years of the last decade, Elk River's preliminary 2012 number, 12,546, was up again this year -- by seven students.

There, the state's eighth-largest district, enrollment has moved in step with the housing market, said Joe Stangler, director of research and assessment.

Lakeville, the state's 10th-largest district with about 10,500 students, expects enrollment to be flat this year, according to Linda Swanson, the district spokeswoman.

Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, the state's fourth-largest district, expects enrollment to be about 27,400, about the same it has been since 2009 but down about 450 students from the peak of 2008.

"Could we do more to actively recruit more students?" said Tony Taschner, the district's communications director. "Absolutely. Are we at a point where we have to worry about that? I don't think so right now."

The Osseo School District, encompassing several northwest-metro cities, also has seen a slip dip in enrollment, from 20,329 last year to 20,205 this year. Still, several years of declines have been fairly gentle after a larger drop from October 2007 to 2008.

During that time, said Kim Riesgraf, the district's assistant superintendent of administration, the district saw some pretty significant budget cuts, and experienced more competition.

"There are more choices for families, more charter schools and more non-public schools in our proximity," she said.

Like some others experiencing enrollment declines, however, Riesgraf noted a bright spot, growing rolls in kindergarten and other early grades.

"We're really committed to do an excellent job with these students who are enrolled with us and we are interested in attracting our resident students back," she said.

Staff writers Anthony Lonetree, Steve Brandt and Heron Marquez contributed to this report. Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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