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A school bus drives over the Poplar Street bridge Feb. 4 in Casper. Enrollment projections for the Natrona County School District have continued their positive trend.

Natrona County schools are now projected to be up 110 students next fall, more than double the estimate from just a month ago and another positive sign for a district that saw persistent declines in enrollment for years during the economic downturn.

“It’s the first time in three years we’ve said that out loud,” Verba Echols, the Natrona County School District’s associate superintendent for human resources, said of the positive projections after the estimates were announced at a school board committee meeting Monday.

In mid-March, the district estimated a growth of 46 students, itself a landmark shift. In the span of a month, the number bumped up to 110, said Mike Jennings, the district’s executive director for human resources, driven by late enrollment and an uptick in incoming kindergarten students. To handle the projected increase, the district will hire five more teachers.

Echols’ comment wasn’t hyperbole: The projections, both those in March and these updated numbers, are the first positive estimates for enrollment growth in the years since the bust.

It’s unclear which grade levels exactly the students are filling. Jennings told the Star-Tribune after the meeting that he didn’t have exact updated numbers, but that elementary enrollment continues to decline. He told the board that there’s still a “bubble” of growth in the middle and high schools, itself a relic of the pre-downturn days when elementary enrollment was strong and the district was building new schools to prepare for that enrollment to continue.

That didn’t happen. The bust took hundreds of students out of Natrona County and Wyoming schools more generally. Much of that loss here was in the lower grade levels: District officials have said the district lost more than 300 elementary students between 2014 and last year.

Last spring, as officials prepared for fall 2018, the district was bracing for another decline but was hoping for flat enrollment, Superintendent Steve Hopkins previously told the Star-Tribune. But 10 days into this school year, when districts release a first headcount, Natrona County was up 184 kids, a remarkable turnaround. There were still fewer elementary kids, but even that decline had a positive side: The drop in fall 2018 was just 31 students, compared to a loss of 154 kids the year before.

The state’s harder enrollment count, which is usually lower than a September headcount, showed Natrona County gained 64 students between the 2017-18 term and this school year. The state’s count is especially important, as it’s used to calculate a district’s funding. Positive growth means not only more students in schools but more dollars in district coffers.

It’s unclear why exactly students are returning to Natrona County. Enrollment is up statewide this year, also for the first time in recent years, and the economy is performing much better. At the same committee meeting, Jennings told the board that there had recently been a decrease in the number of homeschooled students in Natrona County: There were 315 such kids in 2016-17 and 232 last year.

That number — and the decrease — is more good news. The district closed a number of small, community schools recently to help deal with state budget cuts — and because of the departing wave of elementary students. Those closures prompted many parents to say they would pull their children from schools and educate them at home.

Jennings cautioned that the numbers are just projections. Students may leave between now and the fall. He similarly said it was too early to say whether this would mean more state funding for Natrona County.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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