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Graves: Mitchell's enrollment might decline. Why?

Enrollment is counted the last Friday of September and a lot can and does happen between August 17 and September 30.

Joe Graves
Joe Graves
We are part of The Trust Project.

When I was about 8-years-old, I decided that my advancing maturity demanded a name change.

I proudly told Mom and Dad, my brothers, and even a few neighbors that I would no longer be called Joey. It was now Joe. Much to my shame, my mother shed a tear. My father, another Joseph, smiled. My brother rolled their eyes. And one of the neighbors responded by greeting me with the same question for the next 10 years.

“So, whaddya know, Joe?”

I really hated that. These days--this time of year--people will greet me by asking, “How’s the new school year going?” I’ll bet I’ve been asked that 150 times since August 17. (It’s been going quite well, by the way.)

But not everyone has the same query. There is a small group of people, club members, so to speak, who will ask me quite a different one. The club to which they belong is ‘current and former school superintendents.’ These people ask, with a sidelong glance, “So, how’s enrollment?”

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They ask it because our shared experience is that enrollment determines funding. And, like it or not, it takes funding to hold school. When enrollments climb, life is easy.

When they fall, life can get pretty hard.

So how is enrollment? My pat answer is that it’s too soon to tell. After all, enrollment is counted the last Friday of September and a lot can and does happen between August 17 and September 30. You discover that students registered in your classrooms moved over the summer.

Other students show up you didn’t expect. Lots of students move—both in and out—in even just those 6.5 weeks.

Having said that, Mitchell’s enrollment will probably decline by about 25 since last year. So why is that?

Several factors are involved:

  • The echo of the echo of the baby boom is on the wane. Student enrollment can be likened to the snake which has just eaten a large meal, perhaps a wombat, for no particular reason. Watch the snake and you can watch that meal traverse the length of its body. (Yes, I am aware my metaphors are frequently unappealing.) Eventually, though the meal is entirely digested or excreted. Or, in the case of school enrollment, graduated. (Wow, this metaphor is not getting any better.) The tail end of the echo has now reached high school and so every year now, we can expect a net enrollment reduction, ceteris paribus. Since 2000, our enrollment has moved back and forth between a low of 2450 and a high of 2800. As that high was just two years ago and resulted from the aforementioned echo, we are now likely destined for an ebb tide.
  • Mitchell isn’t growing. Well, not by much anyway. I used to say we were only growing by 1% each year. Now, it’s actually lower than that. The problem doesn’t seem to be employment opportunity. More likely, it is a lack of housing. (Thankfully, the right guy, Terry Sabers, is now working on that.)
  • Birth rates are in the tank. A recent report indicated that South Dakota has the highest birth rate in the country. Seems like good news. Except, even SD’s rate is below replacement, defined as 2.1 children per woman over her lifespan, on average. We keep building homes with 3-car garages, but there’s only one tricycle parked inside.
  • Competition is increasingly present in the education market. This is a good thing. Competition improves every human endeavor. One of the reasons for enrollment declines in public schools overall is home schooling. One of the reasons for enrollment declines in individual public schools is competition from private schools and other public schools (open enrollment). Again, this is not a criticism of other forms of education—competition improves everybody—but it is a factor in enrollment declines.

In some sense, enrollment changes are irrelevant. Public schools exist to serve the student-aged population that exists. But schools can do more and be more efficient—up to a limit—when they are growing. Every school superintendent in the world wants their enrollment to grow.
Making that happen is a big part of my job. As every member of my club knows when they greet me this time of year.

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