Overall enrollment is projected to continue to tick upward next year, Natrona County School District officials said last week, though the problem of elementary students leaving the district persists.
The district is predicting an overall boost of 46 students for the 2019-20 school year, bringing Natrona County’s total enrollment up to 13,137. The entirety of that increase would come from middle and high school gains, while continued elementary decreases dragged down what would’ve been a more promising gain. Still, if those projections hold, it would be the second straight year of growth after enrollment plummeted — here and across the state — in the wake of the economic bust earlier this decade.
In December, the state Department of Education released positive enrollment figures statewide that showed, for the first time in three years, that there were more students in Wyoming schools this year than the year before.
The enrollment projections here are a good sign for the district’s funding for next year. The state provides money to Wyoming districts based on a calculation of their enrollments. The projections the school board received Monday are not themselves indicative of a potential small boost in state funding; the calculation is more narrow than a straight headcount of students. But it’s still a positive sign that Natrona County is trending in the right direction.
The bad news is the continuous drop in elementary enrollment, which has plagued the district for several years. While high schools are projected to gain 103 students next year and middle schools should experience a 70-student increase, elementary enrollment is expected to fall by 127 kids. Hundreds of young students have left Casper and Natrona County over the past five years, and it’s not clear why.
Mike Jennings, the district’s executive director of human resources, presented the numbers to a group of school board members Monday. When asked about the falling elementary enrollment, Jennings said didn’t want to speculate about the cause, a stance the district has taken repeatedly over the years.
But he and Superintendent Steve Hopkins still provided some background. They said, for instance, that the number of students who are being home-schooled has not jumped upward recently. This year’s kindergarten class, based on the birth rate from five years ago, should be much higher than it is, they said (though kindergarten is not required in Wyoming).
Hopkins said the numbers suggest that there’s been some sort of mass move away from Natrona County during the past four or five years, which matches roughly with the spiraling and bottoming out of the economy.
He said the reason middle and high schools are still seeing growth is because before the bust, the elementary schools were bursting. That’s why the district was building new schools: to prepare for an expected continued rise in kids here.
Instead, young students have left Natrona County in droves, taking millions in school funding with them. So as the economy sputters and the Legislature cuts school funding to make up for lost revenue, districts are simultaneously losing students and even more money.
This one-two punch was a key factor in the school board’s decisions to close five schools here in 2017 and 2018. Not only was the money running low, but the schools were sitting empty — as many as 700 vacant seats in elementary schools across the district, as of last May.
Officials have been adamant that there is no need — or appetite — to shutter any more buildings here, as the cuts sent down from Cheyenne in recent years have been budgeted for and enrollment is trending upward.