By Joel Stottrup
The Princeton School District has lost an average of 32 students per year during school years 2007-08 through 2012-13, according to a study that Ann Thomas and James Sheehan with SchoolFinances.com reported to the school board on July 16.
Thomas and Sheehan also projected the district’s enrollment to continue sliding in the next 10 years. The enrollment in the school year that just ended was 3,250 and is projected to be at 2,679 in year 2022-23.
The study is full of graphs showing building permits, populations, numbers of females of childbearing age, languages spoken in the district and more. Out of all the graphs, the enrollment changes and enrollment projections may be among the most closely examined parts of the study.
The district lost the most students this past school year than in any of the preceding six years. The report shows a loss of 106 students last school year.
Minnesota’s 1988 open enrollment law to allow students to move from one school district to a neighboring district has been a big factor in migration of students among districts.
One reason administrators want more students is because each student brings about $6,000 in state aid to the district.
One of tables in the study showed the changes in enrollment among the districts of Princeton, Cambridge, Ogilvie, Milaca, Foley, Becker, Big Lake, Elk River and St. Francis for school years 2005-06 through last year. Princeton lost 4.03 percent of its students last school year, compared to Cambridge losing 0.77 percent, Ogilvie losing 2.16 percent, Milaca gaining 0.82 percent, Foley losing 6.30 percent, Becker gaining 0.44 percent, Big Lake losing 1.23 percent, Elk River losing 1.23 percent and St. Francis losing 3.5 percent.
The study suggests that students will leave a district for reasons such as the parents moving out, students just wanting to be in other schools (some of them nonpublic), starting either home schooling or online studies, enrolling in a special program under a tuition agreement, leaving school when the law allows, student death or family relocation because of employment changes.
A lot of times the reason for changing schools is because of the parents’ job location, according to Thomas and Sheehan. Other reasons the consultants gave were the student reaching the highest grade level possible at a school, community growth in housing, transportation or roadways making it convenient to live in one district and enroll in another and a new job in another district.
Princeton Superintendent Julia Espe noted that Princeton administration has begun giving out surveys to find out the reasons for students moving in or out of the district. A report in March this year shows that 300 surveys were given to families of students opting out of the district, and 120 were given to those opting in. Of the 43 total surveys returned, location was the reason cited the most (34 percent) for opting out. Academics was cited the most for opting in (50 percent).
The reasons given in descending order for opting out of the Princeton district were academics; athletics or activities, transportation; class size; teachers; all-day, every-day kindergarten; care before and after school; courses or programs; facilities; bullying; special education; fine arts; financial; and religious.
The reasons given for entering the district in descending order after academics were teachers; athletics or activities; special education; administration; location; transportation; courses or programs; all-day, every-day kindergarten; fine arts; class size; care before and after school.
Long school bus rides is sometimes a factor why some change districts, Espe added.
A couple local examples
Kaija and Jesse Bursch, two sisters who live between Princeton and Milaca, left the Princeton schools to enroll in the Milaca district in the fall of 2007 because Milaca had a better music and arts program at the time, said their mother Wendy Bursch. Kaija was in the sixth grade and Jesse was in third at the time.
Jesse is now returning to the Princeton district to enter the ninth grade. Kaija did not return to Princeton schools and is now a college student.
But Jesse is returning to the Princeton school district this year for the same reason she left, Wendy said. Wendy explained that she feels Princeton’s music and arts programs have improved. Jesse, when asked why she is returning, gave a little different version. She said that her mother now works in Princeton and so it will be easy to walk between Wendy’s job and the school to participate in activities like track, speech and drama. Having to drive up to Milaca for those activities would take money for gas, Jesse said. She added that some of her friends she has in Milaca are moving out so they won’t be there, anyway.
District is in four counties
The Princeton school district encompasses parts of the counties of Mille Lacs, Sherburne, Benton and Isanti. The consultants’ projections are for the populations of all four counties to rise between now and 2020. Sherburne is expected to go up the most at 2.9 percent, followed by increases of 1.8 percent in Mille Lacs, 1.5 percent in Isanti and 1 percent in Benton.
The study also projects:
• The population of the Princeton district to rise 0.93 percent between last year and 2017.
• Females of childbearing age accounted for 16.7 percent of the district’s population last year and is expected to remain stable through the 2017 projections.
• More than half (54.6 percent) of the homes in the district did not have school-age children last year. That is projected to be at 53.9 percent in 2017.
• Building permits issued have fallen in Princeton and surrounding townships in recent years.
• An average of 239 single-family homes have sold in the district from 2008 through May 7, 2013.
Perhaps as telling as the enrollment projections for the district, is the projection that enrollment in nonpublic schools will continue at similar levels in the next 10 years.
Sheehan and Thomas predict that competition for students in grades K-12 is likely to increase and emphasized that Princeton must compete. “School districts must plan, analyze current information, and plan repeatedly.”
The authors acknowledge that because parental choice and program offerings influence enrollment projections, it complicates the exactness in enrollment planning.
Some schools have offered all-day, every-day kindergarten, as well as Spanish or other language immersion programs that are attractive to parents seeking alternative programs for their children, Thomas and Sheehan stated.
Sheehan noted how the Eden Prairie district added a Spanish immersion class to try to lure students back who had left the district. It worked so well that Eden Prairie had to add a second such class, he said.
Had it not been for Princeton’s kindergarten classes becoming larger during the period covered by the study, Princeton’s enrollment would have dropped a lot more, Thomas said.
How the school board and school staff represent the programs and themselves to the community makes a big difference in how people think of the local schools, Sheehan added.
By Joel Stottrup