St. Paul sees 'surprise' jump in enrollment

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2011 - 9:00 PM

An unexpected increase this fall reversed 10 years of losses.

St. Paul school administrators think almost a decade of declining enrollment has ended.

Over the past decade, as charter schools and surrounding suburban districts jockeyed for students living in St. Paul, the district's enrollment plummeted more than 2,000 students.

But this year, more than 37,800 students showed up for class -- 400 more than predicted.

"The decline is just about over," said Stephen Schellenberg, the district's assistant director of research, evaluation and assessment. "The increase in size was a surprise but it was a pleasant surprise, I think."

The last time the district saw an uptick in enrollment was in 2005 after a refugee camp closed in Myanmar, fueling a large Hmong immigrant wave to St. Paul.

Schellenberg attributed this year's increase to administrators' ability to retain more students, particularly at Humboldt and Johnson high schools, and a higher birthrate that led to a larger number of students enrolling in kindergarten this year.

"It's hard for a school to deal with an overpopulation," Schellenberg said. "Principals have been scrambling around to find out how they can accommodate them."

With St. Paul's increase in enrollment, the district had to hire more teachers and teacher aides.

"Our principals didn't ask for the moon but when they had a situation that wasn't workable, they got the resources they needed," Schellenberg said. "It's easier to add revenue than it is to take revenue away."

Schellenberg uses birth records and enrollment trends to predict the district's population and usually makes his prediction in January so administrators can start budgeting for the next year.

Much of a district's revenue comes from a statewide formula that distributes money based on the number of students.

St. Paul began losing students in the 1970s as birthrates fell and more families moved to the suburbs, Schellenberg said. In the 1980s the enrollment climbed again after a large immigration population began moving to St. Paul. The enrollment again declined in 1998 after charter schools and suburban districts recruited more students from St. Paul.

The district just launched a marketing campaign, funded with private money, to attract more students to the district.

Students, parents, graduates, employees and others are being encouraged to spread the word about how schools in the St. Paul district affected their lives.

Superintendent Valeria Silva has set a goal of attracting up to 3,500 more students by 2014.

Just how many students the campaign will recruit to the district will be difficult to predict, Schellenberg said. He will be watching the number of applications in the district in coming months.

"If we make a mistake, we want to be on the low side," he said. "It's easier to add to a budget than to take away from it."

Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib

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