Many area superintendents hope that their school enrollment figures are stabilizing after a decade or more of sharp decline.
However, the enrollment outlook for districts in west central Minnesota appears to be a mixed bag.
Many school districts have incoming kindergarten classes that are smaller than the senior classes about to graduate, and they expect to see that trend continue for a while. Only a few districts have larger incoming classes and more students in their elementary grades.
Districts are split when it comes to spring to fall enrollment fluctuations. Roughly half welcomed a few more students this fall than they had last spring. The other half saw enrollment drop a bit since last spring.
Enrollment numbers are a moving target. Many districts expect to see their enrollment numbers fluctuate during the school year, for a variety of reasons.
Students shift between traditional school programs and alternative settings. Families move in and out of the district. High school students can also attend college classes, and they are no longer counted in the high school's enrollment.
Renville County West, which may have one of the larger swings in enrollment during the year, could see its enrollment fall by as much as 9 percent when migrant families leave the area this fall, said Superintendent Lance Bagstad.
But RCW is also one of the districts seeing a positive trend in its enrollment. "We actually have more elementary kids than high school kids," Bagstad said. "Hopefully, the next couple years will tell us the scope of this."
In the Paynesville Area School District, kindergarten is the largest class in the district, said Superintendent Todd Burlingame.
Willmar's schools have large classes in its top grades and also in kindergarten and first grade.
That's in contrast to districts like Dawson-Boyd and Lac qui Parle Valley, which have smaller elementary classes.
"There are very few school districts where the elementary is bigger than the high school,'' said Brad Madsen, superintendent at Lac qui Parle Valley and Dawson-Boyd.
The statewide high school graduating class last spring is expected to be the largest in Minnesota for a decade, according to State Demographer Tom Gillaspy.
There is a general increase in enrollment in early primary grades, he added. It's an echo of an earlier baby boom, he said. There were more babies born in the 1980s than in the 1970s, and those '80s babies are starting to have children.
For a decade or more, secondary schools have been larger than elementary schools. "Now, that's shifting," he said.
While there may be differences between school districts for other reasons, like the actions of large employers, the expected increase in birth rates is a national trend, Gillaspy said.
Gillaspy said some areas in west central Minnesota are likely to experience that trend, though it will be "much more muted."
However, in the area west of Willmar, "younger folks have been moving out for a long time," he said, and those areas tend to have an older population.
Immigration can be an important factor. "People who move long distances tend to be younger people," Gillaspy said, and they will have an effect on birth rates in some areas.
As enrollment has declined over the past decade, school districts have had to adjust their staffing numbers, too.
Many area districts have been able to decrease staffing by not replacing employees who retired. Some others have had to lay off some teachers and other staff members.
"It makes it hard," said BOLD Superintendent Tom Farrell, "because you're trying to balance those resources across all grades."
Many superintendents said they have worked hard to redistribute staff to keep a lid on class sizes.
MACCRAY had an influx of kindergarten students and is squeezing more than 50 students into two classrooms, with the help of paraprofessionals. But for the most part, classrooms in the lower grades average class sizes in the low 20s. In upper grade school and in secondary grades, some of the averages have crept into the upper 20s.
-- Tribune Staff Writer Tom Cherveny contributed to this story.