The Duluth school district has experienced a drop in enrollment that officials say was anticipated this school year in a competitive education market.

Unofficial headcount numbers from October show 8,365 students are enrolled in the Duluth school district, a decrease of 227 students, or about 2.4 percent, from last year's October count. The largest decrease in students occurred in elementary schools.

District administration will continue to monitor the enrollment numbers and continue to look into the reasons children aren't enrolling in the school district, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said.

"Our focus is really on providing the best education we can to all of our students. If we have great programming and a lot to offer our students, then we'll be the obvious choice in the area," he said. "If you look at what we do offer in the area compared to others in the region, the Duluth schools really have a lot more programs and a lot more opportunities for students than other options."

The Hermantown school district was prepared for an increase in students, but not for the large increase in elementary school students that occurred this year, Superintendent Kerry Juntunen said. In Hermantown, the unofficial headcount in October was 2,116 students - an increase of 67 students, or about 3.3 percent, from October 2014 - pushing the district's three buildings to 97.8 percent of capacity, with some grades over capacity.

Juntunen said he believes Hermantown schools' reputation is enticing new students to attend.

Not only are new residents moving into the Hermantown school district, but there also has been an influx of students open enrolling into the district, causing some grades to be closed to more open-enrollment students, he said. About 21 percent of Hermantown's students open enroll into the district.

"I attribute everything to: We do things the right way. We have a systemic culture of care. Our facilities actually encourage, enlighten, inspire and create curiosity within kids and then we really do have that really strong community center, so with all those things said, I think our vision really draws people in," he said.

Hermantown's priority is its resident students and, going forward, it needs to ensure it's providing spots to students who live in the school district before opening its doors to more students through open enrollment, he said.

"We have to. We owe that to our community members. It's a really nice problem to have, but at the end of the day, enrollment is what it is. We feel like we're doing a good job of monitoring that and making adjustments as we need to," he said.

Duluth Edison Charter Schools also saw an unexpected increase in students this school year, but the staff is proud and happy about the boost, said Bonnie Jorgenson, head of Edison schools. The charter schools had a total headcount of 1,378 students in October, up 46 students, or about 3.5 percent, from October 2014.

"We're very proud of the fact that a lot of people want to attend our school. We actually have a waiting list for a number of grade levels yet. I think word in the community has spread about the great teachers we have at the school and the care and attention they provide to the students who are here," she said.

Edison doesn't expect any more increases in enrollment until its new charter high school opens in 2017.

"Until the new school is built, we really won't be able to grow much larger than we currently are. When our new school opens, our eighth grade is moving to the new school and then we will have a little space for growth, in particular in our middle school," she said.

Once open, Edison's new high school, with a projected enrollment of 660 students, will be the third-largest in the area after Denfeld and East high schools. About 68 percent of last year's Edison eighth-graders said they would attend a Duluth school this fall, equaling about 15 percent of the combined graduating class from Denfeld and East.

Projections for future decline

A Duluth school district demographic study completed last year shows enrollment, especially in the elementary schools, slightly declining during the five-year projections with a few periods of growth. The study projected the district to have 8,273 students by the 2019-20 school year.

The study doesn't take into account the opening of a new charter high school or students who move out of the district or choose a non-public school option.

The administration learned from the study that 1,000 people come in and out of the school district each year, Gronseth said.

"That's something we'll be watching for as well to see if, in the coming months, there's people coming in that are replacing people that are leaving," he said.

Enrollment typically decreases as the school year goes on and administration is watching to see if that will be the trend again this year, said Bill Hanson, the district's business services director.

"The question now is: Is that loss going to be any different than normal because we're behind where we want to be right now. But if the loss is less for some reason, that could come out ahead," Hanson said.

Gronseth and Hanson noted the largest decrease occurred in kindergarten enrollment numbers - the most difficult grade to predict because birth rates from five years prior are used for the projection.

In Hermantown, a demographic study completed during the district's facilities referendum process in 2013 found that the school district would experience a decrease in students through 2020 unless new residents moved into the school district, Juntunen said.

Hermantown experienced a large influx of students in the early elementary school grades this year - causing its elementary school to be at 102.9 percent capacity this year and several grade levels are between 109 and 115 percent of their capacity. Much of the increase is due to new residents, Juntunen said.

Hermantown typically has about 130 kindergartners, but enrolled 150 kindergartners this year. The district had to quickly add an additional kindergarten teacher and convert a classroom into a kindergarten classroom, he said.

Increased competition

School districts across Minnesota are seeing fluctuations in enrollment numbers for a variety of reasons, including increasing competition between districts for students. The Duluth school district has held steady at enrolling 80 percent of the market share among families choosing public schools, even with an increase in education options for Duluth area students, Gronseth said.

"There's increased competition, but we're maintaining. I think it's really important for us to continue to be responsive to the needs and wants of the people in the community so that we have a product that people are really looking for," he said.

Competition for students in the Duluth area can cause districts to improve the education offered in the schools in order to draw new students, Jorgenson said.

"I think competition is a healthy element in the culture of schools. It pushes everyone to do better," she said.

Juntunen said he wants to ensure that Hermantown is hiring the right people and providing the right programs because the district wants to provide the best opportunities for students. He said he believes there are schools in the area that have a "pretty good, solid sector of open enrollment." Families have various reasons for enrolling their children in another school district, including needing a fresh start. Hermantown often has students coming in during sixth and seventh grade who are experiencing a tough time at their current middle school, he said.

However, when it comes to attracting students, it's not about going negative on other school districts in the area, he said, calling all area superintendents "fantastic people who have a passion for education."

"We don't want to ever denigrate the other school districts in our area. Everybody's really trying to do really good work," he said.

Duluth debates the future

Duluth School Board members called for more communication about the school district's offerings to boost enrollment as the board grappled with the enrollment numbers during its Oct. 20 meeting.

Board member Art Johnston requested the district look into the reasons it's losing students while other areas schools are gaining students. He said he's concerned because the district's decline in students causes it to lose revenue.

Gronseth noted that Duluth has high schools of more than 1,000 students and "that's still large in Minnesota."

Board member Mike Miernicki cautioned against comparing today's enrollment numbers to past years. The school district once had four high schools to serve a booming Duluth population working at an air base, steel mill and railroad.

"It's been a long slide in Duluth," he said, harkening back to the Duluth billboard from the 1980s that read, "Will the last one leaving Duluth please turn out the light?"

"We're seeing competition for students increase like it never has before," he said.

He said he'd rather look forward and consider how the district can positively bring in students rather than complain about declining enrollment.

Hanson pointed out that it's hard to consider new programs when declining enrollment means the district has less revenue from one year to the next.

Board member Annie Harala noted the Duluth school district, as a regional education hub, needs to provide resources that neighboring school don't have to - and that needs to be considered when looking at the state funding the district receives via the per-pupil formula.

Gronseth pointed out that although fewer students leads to program issues because the district receives less funding from the state, it takes less revenue to provide education when there are fewer students.

Harala said she wants to consider funding for more communications staff to enable the district to increasingly advertise itself to parents who are deciding where to enroll their child. The district currently has one communications staff member.

Board member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp echoed that sentiment, saying district officials should be encouraging people to consider enrolling their children in the Duluth school district because of what it can offer.

Gronseth explained, "The best retention is to have the best programs we can provide."