Is slight Duluth school enrollment increase a sign of things to come?

In the Duluth school district, where enrollment has fallen 45 percent in the past 22 years, even the slightest projected increase can be cause for hope among administrators.

Duluth school district historical enrollment data

In the Duluth school district, where enrollment has fallen 45 percent in the past 22 years, even the slightest projected increase can be cause for hope among administrators.
Unofficial head count numbers released this month show a 10-student increase from last year, which would mark the district’s second jump since 1994. Superintendent Bill Gronseth said he hopes the small gain is a sign of growth for the city. He pointed to its decreasing unemployment rate, which was 4.3 percent in August, as a possible reason.
“The people coming appear to be younger families with school-aged children,” he said. “I hope this is the start of a longer trend of our population coming up a bit and really stabilizing.”
Several area districts and schools saw increases to their enrollments this year, including Hermantown, Proctor, Duluth Edison and Lake Superior.
“The Duluth area in general is growing,” Proctor Superintendent John Engelking said, and that’s reflected in enrollment numbers in Proctor and across the region.  
The years of student decline in Duluth can be attributed to many factors, including changing demographics, expanding educational choices and, more recently, the tumult caused by the district’s long-range facilities plan, or Red Plan, approved in June 2007.
The 2008-09 school year showed a drop of 543 students from the year before. The $315 million plan led to the consolidation, building and renovation of district schools.
The building plan was meant in part to consolidate schools because of the extra space after the enrollment decline, which was happening yearly in large numbers long before the Red Plan, statistics show. There were 628 fewer students enrolled in the 1998-99 school year than the previous year, for example.
Duluth, now struggling with imbalanced secondary schools in terms of enrollment, and with over- and underpopulated elementary schools, has commissioned a demographic study to determine real estate trends and birth rates. It’s an attempt to help decide where boundaries should be moved to better balance school populations.
One study carried out during the early stages of planning for new schools predicted a slight enrollment increase right about now, which would lead into a plateau in a few years, Gronseth said.
Enrollment numbers at various schools, which probably will change with the state’s official count that factors in more than just head count because of funding, show stability at many schools. Eastern Duluth schools Congdon Park Elementary, East High, and Ordean East Middle, and central Duluth’s Myers-Wilkins Elementary saw growth in larger numbers than other schools. Eastern Duluth’s Lester Park Elementary and western Duluth’s Denfeld High showed the biggest decreases. Denfeld’s loss was smaller than the year before, and Lester Park last year had an increase.
Large decreases in one year at a school often can be attributed to a particularly big cohort moving on, Gronseth said.
That happened in Proctor, where enrollment is up by 20 students, Engelking said. The district’s fifth- and sixth-grade classes have been large, he said, and enrollment had to be capped at sixth grade because there wasn’t space to open a new section.
Open enrollment numbers are up, he said, with 94 students coming in to the 48 going out. The Pike Lake Elementary population is much smaller this year, which Engelking said comes from fewer young families living in that area than in the past.
In Wrenshall, where 40 percent of the 326 K-12 students are from within the Duluth district’s boundaries, there was little growth this year. The district, in talks to possibly consolidate with the Carlton district, receives a “steady stream of sixth-graders” said Superintendent Kim Belcastro, and kindergarten and first-graders, who would typically go to Duluth’s Stowe Elementary.
Hermantown saw an overall jump, plus an increase of 40 students in its kindergarten population. The state began paying for free, all-day, every-day kindergarten for all students this year. The district previously didn’t offer it because of space issues. A section was added to make room until the addition to the elementary school -which had its groundbreaking last week - is built. One less section needed in the first grade allowed that.
The district hopes that more families will move into the area once all of its schools are complete, said superintendent Brad Johnson. A new high school is being built, and the current one will be renovated to become the middle school.

Select Twin Ports K-12 enrollment numbers

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