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Record Enrollment in Kalispell Schools, Increased Homeschool Population
Kalispell schools keep filling to historic highs while Columbia Falls, Whitefish still declining
Students at Bigfork Middle School work on an assignment in an algebra class. - File photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
Kalispell’s classrooms keep filling to historic levels while the surrounding communities are seeing persistent declines in enrollment, according to the latest school data.

A new comprehensive report released last week by the Flathead County superintendent of schools portrays a changing landscape in the valley’s education system.

Classrooms in Whitefish and Columbia Falls have emptied to the smallest sizes in more than 20 years. Kalispell, on the other hand, has the highest district enrollment in history. The number of Flathead County families electing to homeschool their kids is the largest in 16 years.

As of Oct. 7, Kalispell School District 5 reported 3,014 elementary students, its largest enrollment on record, and 2,781 high school students, a decline of 59 over last year but still 315 more than 10 years ago.

The number of kids attending homeschool rose this fall for the third year in a row. There are 540 elementary-aged homeschool kids in Flathead County and 114 high school students. The elementary levels are 159 students higher than last year and the largest total since 1997, when there were 610. The enrollment for high school homeschoolers is 38 more than last year but 15 fewer than 10 years ago.

Stillwater Christian has also seen increased enrollment the past three years and reached levels similar to before the recession. The elementary total hit 204 students, 29 more than last year and the highest since 2008, when there were 207 students. In the high school grades, Stillwater has 99 students, 10 fewer than last year and nine fewer than a decade ago.

The number of elementary students in Whitefish dropped to 1,065 this fall, 30 fewer than last year and 134 below the 2004 total. The high school did see a slight increase of 18 students, hiking the latest total to 497. But that figure is still 245 fewer than a decade ago.

In Columbia Falls, there are 1,402 elementary students, 238 fewer than 2004, and 691 in the high school, 172 fewer than 10 years ago.

School officials are rallying together resources and have made it a priority to address the declining enrollment.

Source: Flathead County Superintendent of Schools Report

“We’re asking ourselves those tough questions,” said Kate Orozco, Whitefish superintendent.

“For a year now we’ve been really working hard on focusing on enrollment in terms of, ‘why are kids coming and why do families leave?’ What we’re noticing is primarily we’ve seen the decline has a lot to do with jobs and homes … What we’d like to see is our enrollment increasing all the time, but it really truly does depend on where the jobs are.”

Whitefish High School is currently undergoing a massive renovation that is on schedule to be completed next fall. Orozco said she is optimistic that the redevelopment will help lure new students and help teachers continue to provide a quality education.

The latest tour of the construction and completed segments is scheduled for 1 p.m., Jan. 10 at the high school.

The persistent influx of younger students in Kalispell has led the board of trustees to readdress long-term facility needs once again.

Last week school officials discussed options for additional elementary space at a regular meeting and began brainstorming ideas, including the possibility of seeking property for a new elementary school down the road, according to Superintendent Darlene Schottle. Earlier this year, eight new classrooms were built as additions to two schools, but those classes have already filled to capacity, according to Schottle.

“I don’t have one empty classroom,” she said.

Nine classes are currently filled beyond the state-accreditation standards of 20 students, she said.
On 12-19-13, Dillon Tabish commented....
@waterman: We’ve attached the info graphic with the school numbers. It ran in the print edition but was not loaded online until now. Thanks for pointing it out.
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