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On the rise: Enrollment increases in Powell schools

Brenna Henderson, 10, takes part in a target game during Thursday’s Harvest Festival at Westside Elementary School. Enrollment within the Powell school system is up slightly this year, thanks in large part to a higher number of students at the high and middle schools. Brenna Henderson, 10, takes part in a target game during Thursday’s Harvest Festival at Westside Elementary School. Enrollment within the Powell school system is up slightly this year, thanks in large part to a higher number of students at the high and middle schools. Tribune photos by Mark Davis

When taking roll call in Powell classrooms, 1,835 students are present this year.

Park County School District No. 1 saw an increase of about 1.4 percent — or 25 students — in enrollment this fall.

“We’ve been steadily enrolling [students],” said Jay Curtis, superintendent of Powell schools. “There’s more kids moving in all the time.”

He said the district is enrolling four more students this week.

Interestingly, this year’s increase isn’t coming from the elementary schools, which usually see more new students. Instead, Powell Middle School saw a small increase, while Powell High School is up a lot, Curtis said.

The student count at PHS stood at 564 students as of Oct. 2 — that’s 50 more students than the high school had a year ago at this time.

Curtis started as Powell’s superintendent in July, and said he hasn’t been here long enough to know why there’s an uptick in enrollment.

“I don’t know what’s going on in town; I don’t know what’s bringing them, but we’ll take it,” Curtis said.

On the last day of school, on May 26, Powell had a total of 1,754 students enrolled. By the first day on Aug. 23, that number jumped to 1,831 — an increase of 77 students.

For the 2017-18 school year, the largest class in the Powell school district is seventh grade with 156 students, while sixth grade (153 students) and
second grade (152 kids) are close behind.

Meanwhile, the smallest class is this year’s first grade with 123 students, and the senior class is next with 125.

At the beginning of October each year, school districts submit their enrollment to the Wyoming Department of Education. The state will use Powell’s enrollment as of Oct. 2 — 1,835 students — in its calculations for funding and other reports.

Several districts in the area saw drops in student counts this year, including Worland, Cody and Meeteetse, Curtis said. He said Riverton is down by about 100 students.

Due to declining enrollment numbers in the Natrona County School District, school officials in Casper have recommended closing three elementary schools and one middle school.

“The [Casper] district has 970 empty elementary seats as a result of the dropping enrollment,” the Casper-Star Tribune reported Sept. 29.

The enrollment drop in Casper is from the downturn in the oil and gas industry.

Declining numbers are concerning for school districts at a time when the state is looking at more cuts to education funding. Earlier this year, lawmakers trimmed around $34.5 million from K-12 education funding in Wyoming.

“Those districts get hit twice,” Curtis said. “They get the enrollment decrease, and then the percentage decrease, which is why Cody had to cut $1 million from their budget last year and we had to cut a third of that, because we had an increasing enrollment and they had a decreasing enrollment.”

Legislators are discussing further cuts to K-12 education as the state grapples with how to pay for schools following the downturn in the energy industry.

“The Legislature keeps throwing around one number … they want to get at least another $50 million out of schools,” Curtis said. “That’s the number that I’ve heard consistently, anyway.”

Curtis recently testified at the Joint Education Committee about the block grant funding model, which he said is not perfect.

“It under-funds in some areas and over-funds in other areas,” Curtis said. “But we get that local control to decide how to best serve our students.”

If the state goes into the funding model to make changes, it would have a ripple effect and unintended consequences that could be devastating, Curtis said.

When advocating for school funding with legislators, Curtis said his platform is: “If you’re going to cut us, just take a percentage off the top and let us figure out how that needs to work in Powell.”

“As soon as they start messing with components of the [funding] model, that is a very slippery slope,” Curtis said.

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