Slight decline in Duluth school district enrollment this year

Smaller incoming kindergarten classes at schools such as Laura MacArthur and Homecroft account for much of a slight enrollment decline in Duluth public schools this year, district officials said. The Duluth district -- which has experienced enrol...

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Historic Old Central High School (file photo / News Tribune)


Smaller incoming kindergarten classes at schools such as Laura MacArthur and Homecroft account for much of a slight enrollment decline in Duluth public schools this year, district officials said.

The Duluth district - which has experienced enrollment decline for decades - lost only a small percentage of students this year, at 1.4 percent. One thing district officials have noticed is some families holding their kindergarten-age kids back a year, with 17 families at Lester Park Elementary, for example, choosing that option.

There are lots of reasons parents decide that, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said, citing a need for social readiness, or a desire to have an extra year of preschool.

Duluth was one of many area districts where the enrollment needle didn't move much. Enrollment in the Hermantown and Cloquet districts and Duluth Area Catholic Schools remained nearly flat, while the Esko and Lake Superior school districts saw slight declines.


Some smaller schools and districts gained handfuls of new students, making sizable increases percentage-wise. Harbor City International charter high school's 15-student increase is a boost of nearly 7 percent to its enrollment, and the charter North Shore Community School's 20 new students is a boost of nearly 6 percent.

The growth there meant adding a bus route on the east end of Duluth, said Barry Wolff, director of the school. He noted three families wanting in on second grade had to be turned away.

"We are full," he said, noting parents like the environmental focus and small class sizes.

Duluth Edison Charter Schools' enrollment increased by 3.4 percent. There are new students at Raleigh Academy, said Bonnie Jorgenson, head of schools, and more students enrolling in the sixth grade at North Star Academy. Small class size is a factor, she said, with a waiting list of 90.

Marshall, Proctor and Wrenshall also gained new students. Wrenshall's nearly 4 percent increase - pushing the tiny district to more than 340 kids - is also a reflection of some families' desires for smaller class sizes, said superintendent Kim Belcastro. Nearly one-third of its students are open-enrolled from Duluth.

The Duluth district had projected in its budget to lose fewer students than it did, especially in kindergarten, said Bill Hanson, business services director.

He said that age group is hard to predict because birth rates used are five years old. But retention rates in the high schools and middle schools were better than projected. Denfeld High School, for example, remained stable. East High School had some loss, with a larger senior class graduating. Because the state gives more aid for older kids, the kindergarten numbers aren't felt as deeply, and if student loss throughout the year is slight, the budget should get back to where it was projected, Hanson said.

A demographic study commissioned by the Duluth district a couple of years ago predicted the decline of elementary-age students, reflected in recent enrollment trends. That study is being updated, Gronseth said, because of state efforts to expand pre-kindergarten offerings.


"If we are expanding voluntary pre-kindergarten, that changes our capacities," he said.

The Duluth district was authorized by the state to receive up to $409,000 to offer pre-kindergarten to 66 students in half-day programs this year. (Some of the money was restricted to things such as special services and food service.) Those students are being served at Myers-Wilkins and Piedmont elementaries.

Gronseth said data the district has collected shows that over time the number of students who live within Duluth district boundaries and attend a public school in Duluth - be it with the district or the various charter schools - has shrunk. That number was 12,173 in 2002-03 and was 10,432 in 2014-2015 - a 14 percent decrease.

The number of students who live within district boundaries who attend a private school in Duluth also has shrunk, from 1,626 to 1,259 during the same period - a 25 percent loss.

The Duluth district is attempting to reverse further enrollment decline by adding new programs that may not be offered elsewhere in the region or that cater to the area's workforce demands. Gronseth noted the Spanish and Ojibwe immersion programs at Lowell Elementary and the district's foray into more technical courses, such as aerospace physics. An engineering-oriented fabrication lab is being built at Denfeld High School.

"We're working really hard to make sure we are offering programs and courses and opportunities ... to attract more students to Duluth," he said.

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