A discussion on limiting open-enrolment into the St. Michael-Albertville School District at a recent meeting focused on the population boom heading for the community’s lone high school, and setting what could be a temporary course of action for limiting outside student from entering the district the the next five years.
The St. Michael-Albertville School Board discussed school capacities and the possibility of overcrowding due to a bubble of large class sizes in STMA’s middle grades with Superintendent James Behle at a recent meeting. All sides agreed that student populations in grades four through eight throughout the district are of concerns as those classes get set to slide into the high school between now and 2021.
Next year’s grades four through nine are larger than any grades preceding or following class sizes (thus far), with next year’s seventh and eighth grade classes each exceeding 500 students. As more of these large class sizes head into high school it will begin to strain the school’s 2,000-student capacity, especially once St. Michael Catholic School students join the public school in grade nine. Catholic school principal Jennifer Haller said typically 30-40 Catholic school students enter STMA high school once Catholic school ends in grade eight.
Next year’s high school population is expected to be 1,853, which is nearly 150 students under the official capacity. However, next year is the first year a larger class size will be entering the high school. When the class of 2017 graduates next spring, the following fall’s incoming freshmen class will be over 100 students larger than the outgoing seniors when you take Catholic students into account. By the time these larger classes make their way into all four grades of high school, by fall of 2019, the school could have around 2,150 students if you estimate 35 Catholic students per grade level joining the high school. This also doesn’t take into account possible growth from new developments or future open enrolled students.
In his presentation to the school board, superintendent Dr. Jim Behle laid out the possibility of setting enrollment caps. He suggested 450 students max for kindergarten, 490 per grade level in grades 1-8 and 525 max per grade for 9-12. If an incoming freshman class has 500 enrolled students, this would leave 25 open spaces for open enrolled students to apply. Catholic school students who live in the school district boundary have an automatic spot in the public schools. The remaining spots would be filled based on a lottery system.
Because class sizes shrink back down from next year’s third graders on down, these caps shouldn’t affect any grades below the high school for the foreseeable future. Behle said the district would like to give preference to younger siblings of currently enrolled students to avoid family disruptions. The board concurred with this, saying families should be kept together in the same school district. Behle also stressed that any currently open enrolled students have a permanent place in STMA schools regardless of whether new caps are put in place.
Board member Carol Steffens said she was open to looking into enrollment caps in order to prevent overcrowding. Gayle Weber, Drew Scherber and Jennifer Peyerl said they would like to hear what the top capacity is for the high school before making any decisions. Jeff Lindquist and chair Doug Birk were more openly hesitant about any plan to limit open enrollment.
“I’m reluctant to change the open enrollment policy if I don’t have to,” Birk said. “We’re moving into a window here where we need revenue. Sometimes when you tip the scales with small changes you can all of a sudden see significant changes in open enrollment.”
“I just think open enrollment is a healthy, positive thing on a number of levels, not just the revenue thing,” Jeff Lindquist added. “I think it’s an enriching thing. So I think, to the extent possible, I want to maintain the existing strong environment of promoting open enrollment.”
Before engaging further in the conversation, all board members agreed they would like to hear from high school leaders about how far the high school’s capacity could reasonably be stretched without significant ill effects. They wanted to hear how class size and ability to offer a variety of courses could be affected at certain student populations before making any decisions. The issue will be taken back up at the board’s next regular meeting, May 2.