Enrollment fell in many school districts across Wyoming this year, with particularly low elementary numbers in Natrona County.
Statewide enrollment stands at 92,976 students — a drop of 285 compared to last fall’s 93,261. Natrona County — the second largest district in the state — lost 35 students over the past academic year. District officials have said for months that elementary enrollment had taken a hit, which they speculated was caused by the recent energy downturn. The numbers bear out that drop: Second and third grade were among the lowest for enrollment in the district.
This school year is the second in a row to experience an enrollment decline, after a decade of growth. The one-year drop amounts to about 0.3 percent of the K-12 student population.
Kari Eakins, spokeswoman for the education department, and Megan Degenfelder, the chief policy officer, said that it’s difficult for them to pin down the cause of the decreases. But Rick Skatula of the Natrona County School District attributed it to the energy downturn.
None of them said the decreases in enrollment were a surprise.
“That’s very consistent with what we’ve been seeing and reporting it out,” Skatula said. “...We have folks here who are forward thinking, this is something we anticipated and have for a while.”
Natrona County dipped below 13,000 students for the first time since the 2013-14 academic year. Its enrollment this year was 12,975.
That 35-student drop can be slightly misleading. District officials have said that Natrona County’s elementary enrollment was steadily climbing before the downturn in 2015, and that bump is making its way through the higher grades. But in the lower levels, 131 students have left compared to last year, according to the state Department of Education.
Low elementary enrollment — five of seven grades saw a drop compared to last year — was a driving factor in the district’s decision to close four schools. The district had nearly 1,000 empty seats for younger students because of the drop in enrollment and new elementary buildings, which had been approved years ago.
Meanwhile, sixth through 12th grade saw a boost for all but two grade levels. That can be attributed to strong pre-bust enrollment in the elementary grades. Those students are working their way through the schools, bumping up higher grade-level enrollment.
The loss of students doesn’t just mean empty seats. The district’s funding is tied to attendance. A drop means a loss of funding, in a time when education is already losing money because of the state’s heavy reliance on the energy economy.
Educators call it the double whammy: Students leave and essentially take funding with them, and available state funding dries up.
Indeed, some energy-reliant districts have been hit even harder than Natrona County. Campbell County School District saw an increase in just five grades, and two of them by one student.
Compared to 2015-16 enrollment, 11 of 13 grades dropped in 2017-18 in Campbell County. That represents millions of dollars in funding.
Of the state’s 48 districts, 25 experienced a decline. Two were tied with their numbers from last year.
Eakins said Sweetwater County School District No. 1 lost the most students at 148, and Sweetwater No. 2 lost 88. Converse No. 2 lost more than more than 7 percent of its students. That district is indicative of the heavy toll small districts pay when students leave. Forty-five kids left Converse 2. The highest percentage loss was Washakie No. 2, at 8.9 percent or 10 students, Eakins said.