REGIONAL— A new ten-year demographic study for the St. Louis County School District offers encouraging news for the south half of the district, but raises warning flags for the district’s two …
REGIONAL— A new ten-year demographic study for the St. Louis County School District offers encouraging news for the south half of the district, but raises warning flags for the district’s two K-12 schools in the north, where significant enrollment declines are expected.
John Powers, of Applied Insights North, presented the results of his analysis during a school board study session in February. Overall, Powers projects enrollment in the district to fall from its current 1,915 students to 1,716 students by the 2026-27 school year, with all of the losses experienced in the north half of the district.
The decline presents financial challenges, since the school district’s state funding is determined by the numbers of students it serves. The projected decline would translate into a roughly $2 million loss in revenue over the next ten years.
Superintendent Reggie Engebritson called the study “very informative,” but said it will take more time to analyze the data and incorporate the projections in any future planning.
“Our district is healthy right now,” said Engebritson. “My plan is to continually look at the data and explore all options to keep our programs viable and sustainable.”
The district-wide enrollment decline is fueled by an anticipated decline in overall population in the region, which makes the trend somewhat difficult to reverse. In the south half of the district, both the South Ridge and Cherry schools have had some success in attracting new students from outside the district, and that’s allowed the district’s overall enrollment to hold its own in recent years, even as numbers have slid in the north.
Powers projects that both South Ridge and Cherry will experience modest student gains over the next ten years, with combined enrollment expected to reach 1,031 by 2026. By contrast, both North Woods and Northeast Range schools are expected to experience significant declines, while the Tower-Soudan Elementary is expected to dip initially, but rebound later in the decade.
According to Powers, student numbers at Northeast Range will dip 28 percent, from its current enrollment of 260 to just 187 by 2026. At North Woods, Powers expects student numbers to fall from the current enrolment of 538 students to 426. While Cherry and South Ridge have been able to boost their student numbers through open enrollment in recent years, Powers said that’s not likely to be a factor for schools in the north, where population is much sparser.
“The problem is that the restructuring didn’t adequately address the needs in the north,” said Tower-Soudan school board representative Troy Swanson. “It actually made things worse.”
Indeed, nine years ago, the four K-12 schools in the district’s north half, which included Cook, Orr, Tower-Soudan, and Babbitt-Embarrass, served 1,188 students. Today, that’s fallen to 868, or 27 percent. By 2026, or just eight years from now, according to Powers, total enrollment in the north half will fall to just 684 students, a drop of 42 percent over the 17-year period.
While the district has experienced open enrollment gains at South Ridge and, especially at Cherry, they haven’t kept pace with the enrollment losses in the north. Northeast Range has experienced the biggest loss to open enrollment in the north, with fully one-third of the students in the attendance area transferring to other schools, such as Ely, Mesabi East, or Virginia. South Ridge has an equally high exodus of students, but also gains students from other neighboring districts, which is something that Northeast Range has not experienced.
North Woods attracts the highest percentage of district students, with 83 percent attending the school. But Powers notes that most students have few other options in the sparsely-settled attendance area. He notes that the students that North Woods does lose live mostly on the southern fringes of the school’s attendance area, where the Virginia school district is relatively accessible.
Powers’ study is sure to reignite discussion at the board level on how to address the enrollment situation in the north. Chris Koivisto, who represents the Northeast Range attendance area on the school board, said the numbers aren’t really that unexpected. “It’s concerning, but these are pretty much in line with what was projected ten years ago. So, I don’t know that the sky is falling.”
Even so, the projection for 2026 puts enrollment at Northeast Range well below enrollment numbers experienced in Tower-Soudan and Orr back in 2008-09, when the school district initiated the restructuring that closed schools in both communities.
Koivisto said he’s sensed a “school spirit issue” in the community, and said it may be playing a role in the continued enrollment decline as well as very low participation in the school’s sports programs. Koivisto said little things may be compounding that problem, such as a lack of lights at the football field and the lack of a practice field for baseball.
He said the lack of a youth sports program is also an issue. “I think that’s a big deal,” he said, since such programs tend to serve as feeders for school-based sports programs. “Winning teams will help attract students,” Koivisto said.
The community does have an active figure skating program, and while Koivisto acknowledges that it’s an excellent opportunity for young people, he said it does draw some athletically-minded students away from winter sports programs in the school.
The school has also struggled academically in recent years, posting lower than average scores in the district. At the same time, however, Koivisto notes that the school does offer some interesting programs, like robotics and computer coding, that aren’t available in many other schools.
The key question, said Koivisto, is whether the school’s enrollment continues to slip beyond 2026, or whether it stabilizes. According to Swanson, Powers noted during last month’s study session, that schools that hit a certain level of enrollment decline can experience a more drastic falloff if parents and students begin to feel the school won’t survive.
While the enrollment projections are a cause for concern, Swanson said it’s still too early to be calling for drastic measures. “We’re not talking about cutting programs or school closures, or anything like that,” he said. In the end, said Swanson, the answer may be to do more to market the district’s southern schools, since there’s more potential for enrollment gains there. He said the board thinks of the district as a whole, so if enrollment gains in the south help the overall budget picture, that helps all the schools.
Yet Powers notes that there’s a potential limit to the enrollment upside in the south, particularly at Cherry where the district had to restrict new open enrollment due to lack of space. That’s started talk of another expansion at Cherry, said Swanson, who has mixed feelings about the idea. On the one hand, he said, the district hates to have to turn down students. At the same time, Swanson said, it’s not certain that the open enrollment wave will continue.
Engebritson said the she expects the space issues at both southern schools will likely be a focus of future planning for the district.
Meanwhile, Swanson added, he’s just happy that the spotlight is on enrollment issues at schools other than Tower-Soudan. According to Powers, the elementary school’s enrollment is likely to dip to about 60 in the next year or two, before rebounding to 70-75.