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Kitsap schools continue to lose students

  - Kitsap County Health District
— image credit: Kitsap County Health District

Despite state numbers showing more students in school, enrollment across Kitsap County has been dropping for more than a decade. And while some districts have seen steeper declines, some districts are expecting to rebound sooner than others.

“It’s very concerning,” said Central Kitsap Superintendent Greg Lynch, whose district is expected to see declines until at least the 2015-16 school year.

Enrollment numbers are the lifeblood of school districts. They dictate how much state dollars the districts receive — to the tune of about $5,300 per full-time student in Bremerton, slightly less in Central Kitsap — and they determine how many teachers and staff to hire. Enrollment also determines whether to build more schools or shutter ones already built, affecting districts’ ability to plan for the future.

The reason for the county-wide dip isn’t certain and has been attributed to everything from a slumping economy and an aging population.

“For us, I can’t explain why we are going down,” said Bremerton Superintendent Lester “Flip” Herndon.

Although students and families have options, such as private schools, home school and on-line courses, those solely cannot account for the dip in county-wide enrollment, Herndon and Lynch said.

Districts cannot consult crystal balls to tell them how many students they will see enter their doors in coming years. For that, they turn to demographers. By using a host of data, district’s get a picture of what is to come.

For Bremerton, the future looks a little brighter after several years of declining enrollment. For Central Kitsap, on the other hand, improvement isn’t expected in the immediate future.

“We are in for some period of stable to slightly declining growth in our school enrollment across the board,” said Reed Hansen, a demographer who in the past five years has completed projections for Bainbirdge Island and Central Kitsap, as well as other districts across the peninsula.

There are many variables that affect enrollment, but school administrators and demographers agree that birth rates, population and the housing and job markets are leading contributors.

Those variables can be unpredictable, demonstrated by the recession, making forecasting enrollment a complex process.

“It’s always a best guess based on what happened the previous three to five years,” said Wayne Lindberg, director of finance and operations for Bremerton schools.

Enrollment is tracked two ways — by total head count and full-time equivalency. The state allocates money for schools based on full-time equivalency, which is the number of full-time equivalent students who belong to a given district.

Head count numbers, meanwhile, are always higher than full-time equivalencies because some students count as “heads” even though they aren’t in the classroom full-time. Those students — some may take online courses, others may home school — are considered partial full-time equivalents.

Bremerton Schools

Bremerton’s full-time student enrollment dropped from 5,985 in 1998 to 5,093 in 2009, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In 2007, demographer Les Kendrick completed an enrollment projection for Bremerton through the 2020 school year. His forecast, projecting the district’s total head count for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, was based on birth rates, population trends and housing construction, among other data. His projections indicated the decline in enrollment will begin to level off, and potentially turn around, beginning next year.

Kendrick completed low-, medium- and high-range projections, predicting an increase in head count beginning in 2011. Projecting total head count, not full-time equivalents, Kendrick predicted a jump of 14 students between 2011 and 2012, followed by an increase in 61 students between 2012 and 2013 and 36 students between 2013 and 2014 with consistent gains through 2020. More than that, the forecast shows the steady exodus of students will subside.

“We’re encouraged by how close the conservative estimates have been,” Lindberg said. “If we continue that way, things are going to improve.”

He cited the possibility of new housing developments — like the redevelopment of the Westpark housing project — as a reason for the potential turnaround, and the district has begun discussions of a new west side middle school. Since that report, however, the economy collapsed and jobs were lost. Some people in Bremerton moved out of the area.

“It will get better, but it could take longer,” Kendrick said “You have to ride the cycle.”

Also contributing to the potential turnaround in enrollment is the possibility that Bremerton may see more births beginning next year.

“The thought is, hopefully those people stay in the area and then those students, five years after they are born, will enroll in kindergarten,” said Herndon.

Central Kitsap Schools

Central Kitsap’s full-time student enrollment declined from 12,814 at the end of the 1998-99 school year to 11,025 in February, according the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The immediate forecast isn’t bright for Central Kitsap, a district that closed two elementary schools in 2007.

Hansen, based on Bainbridge Island, completed a projection of the district’s full-time equivalent enrollment in 2006 and forecasted a steady decline through the 2015-16 academic year.

The report projected Central Kitsap’s full-time equivalent enrollment would drop to 10,852 by 2015-16 school year.

Hansen’s numbers, however, came before the recession, indicating the numbers may be lower than originally projected.

“Basically the results were that growth would be modest if not declining, and in certain areas, there was an expectation of enrollment decline, particularly at the lower grades,” Hansen said. “If anything, the situation is even worse in terms of future projections of enrollment growth.”

Lynch pointed to a trough in births in the Central Kitsap area, saying that is about 75 percent of the reason for the decline. The other quarter, he said, could be attributed to the housing market.

The graduating class of 2010 is the largest class in the district, Lynch added.

Every public school district in the county has a lower enrollment now than it did in 1998, with the exception of the Bainbridge Island School District. Enrollment in the Central Kitsap, South Kitsap and Bremerton school districts has declined steadily since then, all by more than 10 percent, and North Kitsap has declined too, but less severely.

The state reported a full-time enrollment of 1,024,957 in March, up from it’s final 1998-99 count of 979, 608.

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