Hanging on to students

District enrollment declines less than expected

LINDEN HILLS — Classrooms were extra-crowded during the first week of class at Southwest High School this fall, some filled to nearly bursting with more than 40 teenagers.

Principal Bill Smith began adding new classes to accommodate the students, but it wasn’t enough. The school didn’t have enough desks or textbooks to go around, either.

“It became obvious within the first five days that it was a bigger problem, that [the solution] was not going to come from internal tweaking,” Smith said.

Minneapolis Public Schools buildings welcomed more students than expected this year, and despite a few problems, district officials interpreted that as a positive sign. After years of losing students, the decline in enrollment slowed significantly this year.

An estimated 32,500 students filled classrooms in September, a decline of less than 2 percent from the 2007–2008 school year. For most of this decade, the district lost closer to 5 percent of students year-to-year, Jim Liston of the district’s student accounting office said.

The district expected to lose about 1,600 students this year, but the actual decline in enrollment looked to be less than half that amount. Liston said he’d know more in several months, when schools get a firm grip on their enrollment numbers.

Many schools had more students than predicted in September, but high schools provided the biggest surprise.

The district expected to lose 900 high school students from last year, but only lost 300–400. On average, the city’s seven traditional high schools beat enrollment projections by nearly 90 students each.

Liston, like other district officials, was eager to put a positive spin on the development.

“That’s a real pat on the back for high schools [for], basically, retaining kids,” he said, adding that it appeared high schools not only held on to students, but attracted some new students as well.

Stan Allen, the district’s new director of communications, took the news as evidence the district’s strategic plan was working. The plan aims to win back families who have left the district by improving academic performance and closing the achievement gap between black and white students.

Other steps to improve school quality included so-called “fresh starts” for Washburn and Edison high schools this spring. The fresh starts involved a restructuring of the schools to deal with chronic underperformance and declining enrollment.

When 100 students more than expected showed up at Washburn this fall, Principal Carol Markham-Cousins could only interpret it as good news. Changes at the school may have won back some of the neighborhood families the school aimed to attract.

“In many ways, I think how our staff and our students interpreted having more students was really positive,” Markham-Cousins said.

Still, high schools were scrambling to accommodate the additional students.

A few weeks into the school year, principals met to discuss extra funding for teachers that was approved by the district. At Washburn, for example, Markham-Cousins planned to add staff equivalent to 2.4 full-time teachers.

Both Washburn and Southwest added extra classes in order to bring class sizes back down below 40 students. Although many would argue 35 students is too many for one classroom, high school leaders have come to accept that number during lean budget years, Smith said.

All those changes meant many Southwest students were going to get new schedules just after midterms. Freshman and older students taking advanced courses would be most affected, Smith said.

“The good news is we are addressing class size,” he said. “The bad news is it will take a major reshuffling of the schedules.”

Additional textbooks and furniture, ordered at the beginning of the school year, were arriving when Smith was interviewed for this story.

While schools may have appeared caught off-guard, Liston said the enrollment jump “wasn’t a total surprise.”

In recent years, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) has lost most of its students to charter schools and to suburban schools through open enrollment. A third, but less significant factor, had been the declining number of school-age children in the city.

Liston noticed fewer high school students dropped out or transferred last year, an early indication that enrollment numbers would be up this fall. Still, district planners tend to “overbook” schools like an airline flight, so that staff and resources are responsibly allocated, he said.

He guessed that charter schools may have grabbed a smaller portion of the market share this year, but cautioned he wouldn’t have evidence to support that hypothesis for several months. If the slumping economy encouraged more parents to choose MPS over private schools, it was probably a very small number of students, he said.