Flathead Valley Family

Flathead Valley School Enrollment Trends

After years of major growth, enrollment at the Flathead Valley’s public schools is beginning to cool

By Denali Sagner
Students in class at West Valley School. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After a major pandemic-era population boom drove hundreds of new families to the Flathead Valley’s public schools, elementary school enrollment for the 2023-2024 school year is down slightly, signaling possible relief for teachers and administrators who are managing larger and larger classes. 

In Flathead County’s public elementary and middle schools, enrollment is down 2% from fall 2022, amounting to a total decrease of 167 students. Private elementary school enrollment is down 2%, as well, amounting to 262 students.

Local school administrators say a wide range of factors could be the cause of slowing enrollment. According to Flathead County Superintendent of Schools Cal Ketchum, one possible factor is high housing costs that have made it difficult for families to live in to the area. The trend may also reflect slowing population growth in Montana. Montana saw a 0.9% population increase between 2022 and 2023, down from 1.5% the year before. 

Though enrollment is down slightly, post-pandemic growth has forced local schools to adopt space-saving measures and plan for facility expansions. Districts including West Valley, Whitefish and Marion have faced challenges as they attempt to fit growing student populations into old infrastructure while failing pass bonds and levies. 

Students eat lunch at Marion School. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In the past decade, the Cayuse Prairie, Creston, Helena Flats, Marion, Pleasant Valley, West Glacier and West Valley school districts have seen their student enrollment increase by more than 30%. The challenges of growth have been particularly acute for rural school districts that have historically served small communities on the outskirts of the county. 

Public high school enrollment, on the other hand, is up slightly at 2%, or 72 students. 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.

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