EDUCATION
Enrollment up across Iron Range
Tom Klein

REGIONAL – For years, school officials on the Iron Range and elsewhere in the region had come to view declining enrollment as a fact-of-life— one that left school budgets strained time and again. But after two years of rising enrollment figures at many area school districts, school officials in some cases are now facing a new problem—where to fit the extra students.

Enrollments, fueled by a boost in the number of elementary-age students, are up in several school districts across the Iron Range, including the St. Louis County, Virginia, and Ely school districts.

Enrollment in the St. Louis County School District increased by a total of 41 students over last year, with 1,930 students showing up for the first week of classes. That compares to 1,889 at the same time last year.

The growth was centered at Cherry, which gained approximately 50 students over the same time last year. South Ridge also picked up students, while schools in the northern half of the district lost ground overall.

Northeast Range saw the biggest dip among northern schools, dropping from 330 students at the same time last fall to 287 this year, a decline of 43 students. North Woods also saw a decline, from 568 students last fall, to 554 this year. Principal John Metsa said earlier in the week that two more students had enrolled by the end of the day, bringing North Woods total to 556.

Meanwhile, enrollment at Tower-Soudan Elementary was up six students from the same time last year, making it the only northern school in the district to see an enrollment increase.

Superintendent Teresa Knife Chief the increase in enrollment may require hiring additional teachers and creating more class sections in some cases. The district already opted to drop a plan to combine seventh- and eighth-graders in three combined classes and created two sections for seventh grade and two for eighth grade.

She will also be taking a look at splitting some larger elementary classes at South Ridge.

Meanwhile, the district is pursuing a potential expansion of up to eight classrooms at the Cherry School, which saw the biggest gains.

Enrollment is also on the rise at Nett Lake, according to Superintendent Rae Villebrun. The elementary school opened the school year with 85 students, up six from last spring’s enrollment of 79.

“We have a family with children move into the community and we’re also getting some kids through open enrollment because their parents work here,” she said.

Ely’s enrollment is now at 560 students, up just slightly from last fall’s K-12 enrollment of 556. It’s the third straight year of enrollment gains in Ely.

The Vermilion Country Charter School, in Tower, which opened this fall, reported it has 65 students currently enrolled and several others who have expressed interest in the school.

“We’re exactly where we wanted to be,” said Jodi Summit, chair of the charter school board. “We’ve had really strong interest from our local kids.”

Growth across the Range

Other districts on the Range are seeing enrollment gains as well, particularly at the elementary level.

Superintendent Deron Stender said the Virginia School District saw a significant jump in its elementary grades. Kindergarten grew to 173 students from the district’s projected 140 students, requiring the district to add another section.

Total enrollment, K-12, is now at 1,752 in Virginia, up from 1,677 last year and 1,594 in fall of 2011. A good share of that growth is coming from open enrollment with 33 percent of the district’s students now coming from outside the district.

Stender credits the district’s strong test scores, small class sizes and location on the Range for the open enrollment bump.

“We get a lot of students from the Eveleth-Gilbert School District,” he said. St. Louis County School District also has a number of its students enrolling at Virginia.

Stender said Virginia is looking at possibly expanding its facilities to accommodate more students, but is still in the midst of studying how best to proceed.

Meanwhile, Eveleth-Gilbert’s enrollment is up 25 students, and stood at 1,115 students compared to 1,090 at the same time last year.

Hibbing Superintendent Robert Belluzzo said their enrollment numbers are up just slightly over last year. The school posted enrollment of 2,405 students on Monday, up from 2,396 for the start of the 2012-13 school year.

But even limited growth that can be considered a victory, said Belluzzo, who contrasted the current situation with a decade earlier when districts across the region were facing steady declines in enrollment.

He also credits an increase in elementary-age children in schools and said that could also bode well for the future.

“When we first saw the increase in our kindergarten and other elementary grades, we thought it might be an anomaly,” he said. “ But four years later, it appears to be a trend. More young people are moving back on the Range.”

Belluzzo also noted that his school board has already approved plans to offer all-day kindergarten in the 2014-25 school year. The state will begin providing full funding for all-day kindergarten that year, he said, and it could encourage some students, who now open-enroll in districts that offer all-day kindergarten, to stay in Hibbing.

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