Wave of Elementary Students Fill County Classrooms

New report shows enrollment gains in Kalispell, Bigfork, Whitefish

By Dillon Tabish

As Flathead County’s population grows at a higher rate reminiscent of the pre-recession rush, a wave of younger students is filling local elementary schools, especially in Kalispell, Whitefish and Bigfork, according to a new countywide report.

There were 9,658 students in Flathead County’s public elementary schools this fall, 159 more than a year ago and the most on record. Kindergarten through second grade had three of the four largest overall enrollments.

Jack Eggensperger, the Flathead County superintendent of schools, released the annual statistical report last week, detailing enrollment and financial data for each school district. The report, compiled by the first-year county superintendent and his staff, shows a continued surge of young students filling the county’s elementary schools. The report also says overall enrollments are down in local private elementary schools and public high schools.

The rise in students coincides with population gains in Flathead County, which saw an uptick of 1,799 residents last year, the largest year-over-year population increase since 2008, when this was one of the fastest growing areas in the state.

Enrollment in the county’s public elementary schools remained rather stagnant between 2009-2012, but has increased by over 500 students in the past three years.

Kalispell, the largest elementary district in the county, hit its largest enrollment on record this fall with 3,018 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, 521 more than 10 years ago.

Whitefish saw the largest year-to-year gain with an increase of 91 elementary students this fall compared to a year ago.

Bigfork has seen consistent growth for five years in a row, gaining 104 students since 2010.

Columbia Falls’ enrollment has remained stagnant the past four years after taking a sharp dip in 2011.

Private elementary schools had 107 fewer students this fall compared to a year ago.

Amid the trend of rising enrollments, Kalispell administrators are studying possible options for a new school that would help reduce congestion in other facilities and prepare the district for continued growth into the future.

Mark Flatau, superintendent of Kalispell School District #5, and a team of planners will host the latest public meeting devoted to analyzing school options on Dec. 2 at 6 p.m. at Russell Elementary.

“(The growth) is more than a bubble. At this point you can say a trend is developing,” Flatau said of the consistent growth in the elementary classes.

Classes at all five of Kalispell’s elementary schools are already over-capacity, including Edgerton, which has over 100 students more than the ideal amount, according to administrators.

The last elementary school to be built in Kalispell was Edgerton in 1987. In recent years, the district has added classrooms onto existing sites, but those facilities are already filled while others are plagued by deferred maintenance, administrators say.

Flatau said the group meetings have made good progress and that he hopes to engage the public more in the coming months. He said future open forums could be held to ensure the community understands the district’s reasoning behind potentially building a new school.

At the high school level, enrollments declined slightly throughout the county compared to a year ago. The overall high school enrollment in Flathead County was 15,467, still nearly 400 more than 10 years ago.

To read the county’s schools report, visit https://flathead.mt.gov/schools.

Fluctuations in Flathead County Students

Source: Flathead County Superintendent of Schools

Kalispell

Enrollment

Elementary District

1996   2,584

2001   2,367

2005   2,518

2010   2,840

2015   3,018

High School District

1997   2,408

2001   2,425

2005   2,494

2010   2,699

2015   2,816

Columbia Falls

Enrollment

Elementary District

2001   1,654

2005   1,596

2010   1,519

2015   1,401

High School District

1997   945

2001   883

2005   862

2010   723

2015   638

Whitefish

Enrollment

Elementary District

2001   1,227

2005   1,197

2010   1,122

2015   1,186

High School District

1997   660

2001   659

2005   725

2010   492

2015   489

Bigfork

Enrollment

Elementary District

2001   516

2005   492

2010   469

2015   573

High School District

1997   404

2001   368

2005   375

2010   257

2015   287

Private Schools

Elementary & High School

2001   1,710

2005   1,733

2010   1,350

2015   1,579

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.