At no point in the past 15 years has the St. Michael-Albertville school district grown by fewer than 100 students per year, and the current school year is no exception. Student population in the STMA district increased 215 students over last year, to a new all-time high of 6,298 students.
Superintendent Dr. Ann-Marie Foucault laid out this information, and much more, to school board members Monday evening. The report touched on building capacities and special populations of students such as special education, low-income and open enrollment.
The report shows enrollment is predicted to maintain a modest increase through the 2020-21 school year, when they predict a population of 6,552 students. Demographers told the district that enrollment predictions beyond this year are too far into the future to accurately determine. The enrollment projections for this school year ended up 120 students short of the actual enrollment, but despite that, Foucault said she has faith in the data.
“The district told the demographers to use 410 for kindergarten, as that is what we predicted,” she said. Kindergarten enrollment ended up at 455. “I believe the growth was due in large part to the conversations the board had regarding open enrollment last year. I think it caused some to open enroll this year in case the board decided to close open enrollment.”
The school district has seen a slow decline in the number of low-income students in the district, as measured by the percentage of students who qualify for free/reduced lunch prices based on family income. The percentage of students on free/reduced lunches spiked during the recession from 2009 to 2013 before starting to tick down again. The current percentage of students on free and reduced lunch is 12.1 percent, down from a high of 15.5 percent in 2013.
Minority student populations have been strikingly constant over the past decade, the report showed. The number of minority students bumped up just under 2.5 percent between 2005 and 2006, to 8.1 percent, and since 2006 the percentage has hovered around 8-9 percent. The current number sits at 9.1 percent of STMA students identifying as a minority race. Likewise, the number of students participating in the English language-learning program has been stagnant around 8.5 percent for the past several years.
As for special education, Foucault said there are currently 520 students in the program. The largest group of special ed. students are those in the speech/language impaired program, which has 127 students. Other large categories include “specific learning disability,” with 99 students, “other health disability,” with 95 students and autism spectrum disorder, with 60 students. The report shows the STMA special education program costs $10,022 per student served, which is lower than any other school in the Mississippi 8 conference. These other local school districts spend anywhere from $11,199 (Cambridge-Isanti) to $21,422 (Monticello) per special ed. student.
Some of the most striking information from the report came from the open enrollment information presented. The 2009-10 school year was a turning point year for the district in this regard. This is the year the STMA school district eliminated the Jan. 15 open enrollment deadline, as they were preparing to open the new high school and turn the former high school into a second middle school. The school district’s population exceeded 5,000 students for the first time that year, but they had plenty of room to grow with the new buildings in place.
And grow it did. With the loosened open enrollment restrictions, 2009-10 was the first year since 2001-02 that the school district brought in more open enrolled students than they lost to open enrollment in other districts. The year before the district lost a net 49 students, but with the loosened restrictions they gained a net 14 students in 2009-10.
The net gain of 14 open enrolled students has exploded in the seven years since, and by 2014-15 STMA gained 259 more students than they lost. That year, a total of 617 students open enrolled into the district, bringing in an additional $1.56 million in revenue.
Uncertain future for open enrollment numbers
The elephant in the room, though, is the new Pre-K through grade 8 school that is currently under construction in Otsego, which will service an area of the (ISD 728) Elk River school district, which is where many STMA open enrollees come from. The new school will open its doors to students in the fall of 2017, and while Foucault said she doesn’t have any solid information to back this up, she feels the STMA district will not lose too many currently enrolled students. As for new kindergarten students, on the other hand, she said she’s not as sure what will happen.
Another factor that could influence future open enrollment is February’s $35 million bond referendum, which would add classrooms onto Albertville Primary and the high school, which are both tight on space. School board members said they would almost certainly need to re-assess open enrollment policies if the bond referendum does not pass.