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Education

Elementary School Enrollment Drops, High School Enrollment Rises Slightly Across Flathead Valley

After a pandemic-era population boom prompted unprecedented growth in local schools, enrollment is beginning to cool at the elementary and middle school level

By Denali Sagner
Halls of Swan River School in Bigfork on Oct. 18, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Enrollment across the Flathead Valley’s 19 public elementary school districts is down slightly this school year following a major uptick during a pandemic-era population boom in northwest Montana, according to Flathead County’s 2023 “Statistical Report of Schools.”

In the county’s public elementary and middle schools, enrollment is down 2% from last fall, amounting to a total decrease of 167 students. Private elementary school enrollment is down 2%, as well, amounting to 262 students.

At the high school level, however, both private and public schools have bucked the trend of decreasing enrollment at the valley’s elementary schools. Public high school enrollment is up 2%, or 72 students, and private high school enrollment is up 66%, or 180 students. Notably, the dramatic uptick in private high school enrollment is due in part to One School Global in Kalispell increasing its high school student body from 2 to 3 students, or 100%, pushing up the percentage increase.

Flathead County Superintendent of Schools Cal Ketchum said it’s hard to pinpoint why elementary school enrollment has dropped off across the valley. Ketchum speculated that prohibitive housing costs have made it difficult for local families to stay and new families to move in to the Flathead Valley.

“It’s really hard to quantify it,” the superintendent said.  

The Creston, Deer Park, Kila, Olney-Bissell and Smith Valley school districts saw enrollment dip by 10% or more. Bigfork, Cayuse Prairie, Evergreen, Kalispell, Somers, Swan River and West Glacier saw decreases between 1% and 10%. A handful of districts maintained steady enrollment or saw slight upticks, including Columbia Falls, Fair-Mont-Egan, Helena Flats, West Valley and Whitefish. The Marion School, an outlier among its neighbors, increased its student population by 10% in the last year.

Joe Price, superintendent of the Somers-Lakeside School District, which saw a 6% decrease in its student population, also said it’s difficult to tell why enrollment may be slowing. The district’s student population went from 565 in 2022 to 530 this school year. Price said that the dip in enrollment is difficult on the school, which relies on the state funding that comes with each enrolled pupil.

At the high school level, the Bigfork School District saw a 1% decrease, or three students; Columbia Falls a 2% increase, or 12 students; Kalispell a 0% increase, or 12 students; and Whitefish a 9% increase, or 51 students.

While elementary school numbers are down this fall, unprecedented growth has swept across the valley’s education system in the past decade. Schools from Marion to Whitefish are bursting at the seams as they attempt to fit ever-growing student classes into old infrastructure while failing time and time again to pass bonds and levies. Educators have pointed to the pandemic-era population boom that drew thousands of new residents to northwest Montana as one of the major drivers in upward enrollment trends.  

In the past 10 years, the Cayuse Prairie, Creston, Helena Flats, Marion, Pleasant Valley, West Glacier and West Valley school districts have increased their student enrollment by more than 30%. All four of the valley’s public high school districts have also seen enrollment increases, with Bigfork and Whitefish expanding at the steepest rate.

The full report can be found here.

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