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School enrollment on the rebound? Duluth, Carlton County districts see student growth

Wrenshall School teacher Angie Wagemaker watches as her second- and third-grade students perform a peer-to-peer problem solving exercise. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Wrenshall School sixth-grade teacher Kenny Mattinen makes a game out of a math lesson, having students compete to see who can multiply numbers faster. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Wrenshall School kindergarten teacher Anna George works with students on a math exercise Thursday morning. Wrenshall is one of the school districts in the area whose enrollment increased this year. Much of Wrenshall’s 14 percent increase was in its lower grades. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 3

The Duluth school district has more students filling its schools this fall than the year before for only the third time since 1994.

The 1.5 percent increase to the 8,000-plus district comes largely from kindergarten classes, said superintendent Bill Gronseth, which is positive, he said, because enrollment in elementary schools tends to be stable. High school enrollment in Duluth has historically dropped throughout the school year.

"We are starting off with higher numbers, not only higher than we projected but higher than last year, which is great," he said, noting attendance and relationship-building efforts are in place to do a better job of keeping high school students in class.

Wrenshall, Cloquet and Esko — all Carlton County school districts — also saw a bump in students. In fact, Wrenshall and Esko have the most students they've ever had, school officials said.

Wrenshall's 390 students this fall illustrate a 14 percent increase. Half of the district's students are residents and half come through open enrollment, with the largest number coming from Duluth. There, too, growth is seen largely in elementary school grades, but also in the sixth grade, said superintendent Kim Belcastro, which is because some Duluth school district families choose the smaller Wrenshall over the larger Lincoln Park Middle School.

Wrenshall continues to send two buses into the Duluth district, which are full. It has capped its fourth and sixth grades to further open enrollees this year.

"We are monitoring any more continual growth right now," said Belcastro, who will resign from her post this month for a position with the Minnesota Department of Education.

Esko, too, has had to limit open enrollment to avoid over-filling some grades, said superintendent Aaron Fischer. District enrollment increased by 4 percent to 1,267, which Fischer attributes to open enrollment and more families moving into the district.

Cloquet, with a 2.3 percent increase, experiences small but steady growth regularly, according to superintendent Ken Scarbrough, but like Duluth, loses some older students every year. The new middle school has been an attraction for open enrollees, and that's showing in numbers, he said.

School districts and schools with enrollment decreases include Proctor, Duluth Edison Charter Schools, Carlton, the Lake Superior school district, the Catholic Diocese's Stella Maris, Marshall School and Lakeview Christian Academy. The charters North Shore Community School and Harbor City International, along with Hermantown, remain flat.

While Duluth trended upward this year, it is still 200-plus under the number of students enrolled in fall of 2014, the last time the district began on a positive note.

A new effort this year to draw more students from neighboring districts through the extension of bus routes only yielded a handful of students, Gronseth said.

Some schools remain under capacity, while other schools have grown, a trend that will probably mean boundary changes in the next couple of years. The Duluth School Board rejected last year a contract with an out-of-town demographer the district wanted to hire to further the boundary change process. To deal with space issues this year, various programs housed inside schools will be shifted to buildings that can accommodate them. The early childhood and Head Start offices at Lowell Elementary will be moved elsewhere to make room for the school's growing language immersion programs.

When the demographer contract was being put to a vote, district officials said boundary changes would likely be needed by the 2018-19 school year. Congdon Park Elementary is particularly in need, with nearly 600 students this fall.

Gronseth said last week that changes could probably wait until the 2019-20 year, unless further study shows a more imminent need.

Stowe, Lakewood and Homecroft elementary schools have seen steady student decline for several years. Gronseth pointed to housing trends as part of that decline, noting that housing growth and development in Stowe's neighborhood and westernmost Duluth may reverse that trend for Stowe.

Lincoln Park Middle School, which has continued to enroll 300-plus fewer students than its eastern counterpart, experienced a 7.5 percent student increase this fall. The enrollment disparity between East and Denfeld remains, with East enrolling 532 more students than Denfeld thus far.