Talk around town has been that droves of out-of-towners are signing up their kids in local schools, but in reality Teton County School District No. 1 has seen a reversal of its recent pattern of growth.
Numbers the district provided show an overall decrease of 95 students as of Sept. 15, the day final tallies for the student body population were set. At the end of the 2019-20 year the district had 2,838 students, but just 2,743 showed up this year.
Rather than being an across-the-board decrease, the student population shrunk in a few specific areas.
“I think that the biggest surprise was that parents selecting home-school would be out of Colter and Munger,” Superintendent Gillian Chapman said. “Both of those schools lost a significant amount.”
To be exact, Munger Mountain Elementary School’s population decreased by 29 kids, and Colter Elementary School has 50 fewer students this year. Much of that shift is in kindergarten.
At the end of the 2019-20 school year, the district had 234 kindergartners, but this year that number is 198.
“What that tells us is that some parents decided to keep their child home because it’s just really hard to do kindergarten if you’re going to have any kind of closure,” Chapman said.
That could spell increases in kindergarten and first-grade classes next year. If kids are enrolled in a home-school program, parents might bump them into first grade, while others may start their children a year late.
Kindergarten, however, doesn’t explain the entire drop. The district often sees a decrease from the previous year’s eighth-grade class as it goes into high school, as parents take the opportunity to explore other options.
“We sort of anticipate that we generally have about 20 kids that decide to go to private school in ninth grade,” Chapman said.
That’s in line with the 23 rising freshmen who didn’t enroll at Jackson Hole High School.
With the pandemic casting uncertainty over the school year, more families are also choosing to home-school. Though they haven’t received paperwork for all kids yet, district administrators estimate that about 124 kids are being home-schooled this year, more than double the 58 of last year.
As for the theory that more out-of-towners are entering the district, this year hasn’t seen numbers too far outside of normal. The district has 365 new students, with more than half of those being kindergartners, compared with 416 new students last year.
District communications coordinator Charlotte Reynolds said Tuesday that 120 of those new students moved to the district from out of state, and 27 moved from inside Wyoming. In the 2019-20 school year the final tally was 129 out-of-state students, so this year doesn’t look to be much of an outlier yet, though kids could move here throughout the year.
The district’s enrollment numbers fluctuate most years, but Chapman expects 2020-21 to be particularly volatile. The pandemic and the switch to partial virtual education are likely factors in the jump in home-schooling, so if the pandemic worsens, more students might exit the district system.
On the flip side, a vaccine, treatment or general improvement in the pandemic could encourage families to return their children to public school and return numbers to previous years’ levels.
It may be too early to tell.
“We’re just going to have to wait and see what happens on a month-by-month basis,” Chapman said.