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Paynesville Press - Sept. 10, 2003

School district enrollment drops again

By Michael Jacobson

Opening-day enrollment continued to decline - for the ninth consecutive year - when classes in the Paynesville Public Schools resumed on Tuesday, Sept. 2.

K-12 enrollment in Paynesville dropped to 1,101 in 2003-04, the lowest enrollment in the school district in the past 12 years.

This year, the district lost 39 students, with most of that loss due to graduation. (Last year, opening-day enrollment was 1,140.) In June 2003, Paynesville Area High School graduated 97 seniors, who were replaced this fall by only 67 kindergarteners, a loss of 30 students. The district also had a net loss of nine students in the other grades.

"It's about what we expected," said superintendent Howard Caldwell of the enrollment decline. This fall, enrollment dropped in each building - elementary, middle, and high school - and is at a decade-long low in each one: 430 in K-5, 267 in 6-8, and 404 in 9-12.

While the school district used to average more than 100 students per grade, for the past nine years, enrolling classes in Paynesville have been less than 100 students. In fact, the average kindergarten class over the past nine years is 80 students.

Now, in grades K-8, the district does not have a single class with more than 100 students. Only the four high school classes are larger than 100 students this year. In the elementary school, the average class has 72 students. The middle school averages 89 students per grade, and the high school averages 101.

As these smaller incoming classes continue - with the district averaging 75 students per grade instead of 100 students per grade - district enrollment could drop below 1,000, said Caldwell.

Enrollment is key to the school's finances because the state essentially pays the district per pupil. The state reimbursement is $4,600 per pupil, though the upper grades are weighted, yielding nearly $6,000 per pupil for grades 7-12.

Last winter, the school district approved $180,000 in budget adjustments to compensate for the projected enrollment loss in 2003-04. More budget reductions will be needed as the district enrollment continues to decline, said Caldwell, who thinks the district may need to make at least another $150,000 in budget cuts and adjustments for next year.

Exactly how much in budget adjustments need to be done will be better known after the district's annual financial audit is completed in November, said Caldwell.

In addition to the financial impacts of declining enrollment, the school district will also look at organizational and alternative programs this school year. Two of the school board's goals for this year are to review and encourage the development of alternative education delivery programs and to review and establish an appropriate organizational structure for the school district, effective with the 2004-05 school year. One thing for the board, administration, and staff to consider is switching to a two-building model with an elementary school (K-6) and a secondary school (7-12).

Due to budget cuts, the district's middle school structure has been changed drastically in the past few years. Originally, the "middle school" concept - grades 6-8 - was intended to be a bridge from the elementary school to the high school. In the middle school, students move independently to their classes, have some elective choices, have interaction between grades, have students responsible for more homework, and get letter grades.

But, due to budget cuts, a number of changes have taken place in the middle school in the past few years. First of all, the middle school now shares a common schedule with the high school, making it easier for teachers to be shared. This meant eliminating Prime Time and eliminating common planning time for the core teachers in each grade.

The middle school also lost its at-risk teacher due to budget reductions, and the middle school principal position was eliminated (though the district did not actually eliminate an administrator). This has left the high school principal in charge of students in grades 7-12 and the elementary principal in charge of grades K-6, though the sixth graders were located in another building. Last year, teachers in each grade in the middle school were utilized to handle student discipline.

While Caldwell argued against cutting an administrator last year, with smaller classes now making their way into the district's upper grades the district could soon switch to a two-school model, he said. The district already has an administration decision to make, since Caldwell has already announced that he will retire at the end of this school year, and a school board committee is working on finding a replacement.

The district also will look at alternative programs, like multiage classrooms, which the board approved for this school year but now are planned for implementation next year. Multiage classrooms would feature students of different ages in the same room. A multiage classroom with second and third graders, for example, would have a two-year curriculum covering both second and third grades.

Multiage classrooms would give greater choice to parents, who could opt to keep their kids in a traditional classroom or participate in a multiage class, said Caldwell.

Multiage classrooms would also give the district greater flexibility in class sizes. So far, a great deal of the budget cuts has been the teaching staff at the elementary school, since this is where the greatest loss in enrollment has occurred in the past nine years. (Nine years ago, in 1994-95, the elementary school had 651 students, or 109 per grade; this year, the elementary school has 446 students, or 72 students per grade, causing a switch to three sections per grade in some grades.)

This year, concern was expressed about having three sections in third grade, with class sizes of 26 or 27 students, and a multiage classroom of second and third graders was offered as a solution that would have decreased class sizes in third grade by raising class sizes in second grade slightly. By adding a multiage classroom of nine second graders and 11 third graders, three classes in second grade would have had 22 students (instead of 18 or 19), and three classes in third grade would have had 23 students (instead of 26 or 27). Caldwell said the district will need to continue to explore alternative programs, like multiage classrooms, in order to maximize efficiency and to offer more options to parents and students. With open enrollment and post-secondary enrollment, parents and students have more options than ever for education.

The school district needs to recognize different approaches to learning and offer more options for students, said Caldwell. "Realistically, we're here to help parents meet the needs of their children," he said. "We're a service-delivery agency for education."

And the district needs to keep in mind the need for change when doing everything from making budget reductions to agreeing to language in contracts, added Caldwell. How to best offer school services while enrollment declines will be a continuing challenge, said Caldwell.

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