The Kalispell Public Schools district has seen an unprecedented spike in its high school enrollment this fall, counterbalanced by an unprecedented plummet in elementary school enrollment.
When factoring in the massive surge in new homeschool registrations, however, the overall dataset points to one assumption, which holds true countywide: a lot of new people with kids have moved here.
“I think we’ve seen a significant increase in new families,” Kalispell Superintendent of Schools Micah Hill said.
High school enrollment in Kalispell increased by 114 students this fall, based on counts taken on Oct. 5, jumping from 2,844 to 2,958 students. Hill said a typical year-to-year increase is closer to the 20-25 range, although some years it even declines slightly.
Hill said other major high school districts in Montana, except Billings, have seen similarly large spikes. He also said statisticians from Flathead Valley Community College have projected continued student growth in Kalispell over the next five to 10 years.
Kalispell’s elementary enrollment, meanwhile, fell by 195 students, from 3,079 to 2,884.
“Without question, we’ve never seen a decline like that,” Hill said.
The working theory to explain the huge discrepancy between elementary and high school enrollment in Kalispell is that families with elementary-aged students are more likely to choose to homeschool than families with high schoolers, and a lot more families are opting for homeschool amid the pandemic.
The Kalispell school district had 264 registered homeschool students in 2019, meaning that many homeschool students were living in the district. That figure nearly doubled to 509 this year.
Kalispell’s homeschool numbers mirror the countywide statistics, which show more than a doubling of registered homeschool students in Flathead County, from 715 last year to 1,515 this year, including more than 900 new homeschool registrations since July. The county already had the most homeschool students of any county in Montana before this year’s surge.
Since many of the new homeschool registrations are directly the result of COVID-19, it’s possible that local public and private schools will see a significant post-pandemic enrollment influx with families re-opting for the brick-and-mortar setting.
Countywide public school enrollment declined 358 students from last October, but given that the homeschool spike is far larger proportionally than the dip in public school enrollment, Flathead County Superintendent of Schools Jack Eggensperger believes the numbers reflect a considerable increase in new families.
“That jumps off the page to me,” he said. “It means to me that a lot of kids who are going to homeschool are being replaced by new kids and/or a lot of new people who are moving here are doing homeschool.”
“What it suggests,” he continued, “is there are a lot of new people moving in, and there are lot of families with kids moving here. I really am amazed based on what I’ve seen in the enrollment figures.”
Most of the other 19 elementary and four high school districts in Flathead County saw more modest changes than Kalispell, typically slight enrollment decreases with a handful of increases, although a few declines were steeper, including Whitefish elementary losing 67 students and Columbia Falls elementary losing 57.
Those decreases were more than offset, however, by homeschool increases. Whitefish had a combined 66 homeschool students in 2019, including both elementary and high school, while this year it had 157, a 140% spike. Columbia Falls had 106 homeschool students total last year, a figure that skyrocketed by 115% to 228 this fall.
Combining homeschool and public school numbers in those districts pencils out to an overall uptick in students across all grades.
For private schools, the county as of Nov. 2 was still waiting on enrollment figures from the Montana Academy and Valley Adventist, but available statistics and anecdotal evidence point to similar trends as at public schools, with slight decreases in elementary enrollment and more families opting for homeschool.
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