Smaller area districts battle declining enrollment, hope to 'turn the corner'.
The latest certified enrollment counts from the 2001-2002 school year show that many schools around northwest Iowa saw their school populations drop from the year before, and several districts experienced sharp declines of more than 25 students.
Only Storm Lake, Galva-Holstein and Albert City-Truesdale bucked the trend locally, reporting growths in student population this fall.
The Storm Lake Public School District enrollment went up 24 students, from 1,859 in 2000-2001 to 1,883 in 2001-2002 - and a new state projection calls for gains to increase to beyond 2,000 students by 2005.
"We were happy to see the numbers jump," Storm Lake Superintendent Dr. Bill Kruse said. "We think it's a big deal for us to have more students in our school district at this time."
Other districts are not so fortunate. The Alta School District saw a drop of 37 students, from 637 to 600, Storm Lake St. Mary's fell from 317 to
284. and Schaller-Crestland tumbled from 516 students in 2000-2001 to 487 this year.
Local superintendents said the figures reflected a pattern in northwest Iowa schools over the past few years, and said it was a serious issue, as enrollment counts directly affect education budgets in each community.
"The trend is for school districts around the area to go downward," Aurelia's Bill Crumbaugh said. "At least three-fourths of the schools in northwest Iowa reported being down in enrollment at our superintendent's meeting (last Wednesday). When you think about it, that's significant."
"It's definitely a concern, because the loss of students could affect our planning for the future," Alta's Fred Maharry said. "We obviously have to gain back some of those students that we lost this year."
"We've been going down slightly over the past several years, and there are a couple of reasons for that," Newell-Fonda
Superintendent Merle Boerner said. "The main reason is that there certainly are fewer families with school-aged children in town.
"The number of jobs for younger families around the area is down, and there are also fewer farm families," Boerner continued. "With individual farms growing bigger, there are less families around the area, and that can be some of the reason for the slight decline in our school district. But, the decline is mainly based on the job availability in the area."
Projected enrollment estimates from the Iowa Department of Education seem to confirm Boerner's analysis.
Forecasts of the 2005-2006 populations for the school districts of Alta, Aurelia, Newell-Fonda, Schaller-Crestland and Albert City-Truesdale were all lower than current totals, and there were some, such as Aurelia and Newell-Fonda, whom the state predicted would lose nearly 60 more students over the next five years.
The only area school system which saw a projected increase in pupils was the Storm Lake Public School District, which the state said would see a total of 2,007 students in the 2005-2006 school year, up from this year's certified count of 1,883.
Despite the widespread downfall in enrollment among Iowa education systems, there were some smaller districts who bucked the trend and saw their figures rise from the previous year.
One such success story occurred in the Albert City-Truesdale school district, which had a certified enrollment in 2001-2002 of 315 students, an increase of 15 pupils from the previous year.
Albert City-Truesdale Superintendent Steve Mitchell said he was excited about the rise in the amount of students, and said that he was hopeful the district could receive similar reports over the next few years.
"We were very pleased this year," Albert City-Truesdale Superintendent Steve Mitchell said. "That's a big deal for us, because we are a smaller school district. Every increase we have is a huge benefit."
Harold Post, Galva-Holstein Superintendent, was even more optimistic about the future for his district, as his certified enrollment went up nine students to 572 this year.
"I would anticipate that we've turned a corner as far as enrollment," Post said. "The city has plans to add some more housing, and there are also several businesses around here that are helping to create jobs as well. We're certainly hopeful that we will be able to see figures climb more in the future."
Several school officials also took comfort in the fact that they had been able to stem their losses in the enrollment category over the past year.
Both Aurelia and Newell-Fonda reported decreases of only five students over the past year, and Crumbaugh said he was extremely pleased with those results.
"We were very happy about the numbers," Crumbaugh, whose district went from 366 students to 361, said. "We were down 33 students the year before, and this year we were only down five, so that was very good to see. We've been able to make significant improvement in that regard."
The major question facing nearly every school district, however, is how to keep their enrollments from falling in the future, especially when the state in general is losing rural population.
The majority of superintendents surveyed agreed with the assessment of Schaller-Crestland Superintendent Gerald Scott, who said his district in particular needed to follow three steps to reverse the downward trend.
"First of all, we need to get the story out about the quality of education we have here in Iowa," Scott said. "Second, if we are going to see a more diverse makeup in our school system in the future, we must be receptive to that. We must respond to that and show we care and are concerned about the needs of those students.
"Third, we have to start seeing if there is anything we can do differently to improve our school system and make it an even better place to be. If we can do that, then things can snowball and we can see these numbers rise. None of those are quick fixes, though. It will take some time."